Mesquite and Land Management

I have a love hate relationship with mesquite. When kept to manageable levels, it is a valuable part of the ecosystem and provides food and shelter for a number of critters. It has wood that makes great bar-b-que, if handled properly*. But it is also a sign of very poor land management, and once it takes over, it ruins pasture and lowers the local water table.

I’m always pleased to see large piles of grubbed up mesquite, because that means that someone is investing in the land, improving it, and will take care of the property as it needs to be cared for. You can’t “just” spray mesquite, or take a chainsaw to it if the spread has gotten too bad. No, you have to use a D-8 Cat bulldozer or bigger with a grubbing-plow attachment on the blade mount and rip it out, getting as much of the roots as possible. Then, if you have the money and time, you add a dose of Bush-B-Gone to the stump. Sort of the botanical version of “nuke it from orbit.” Once the dead brush is dry, you get the proper burn permit, let your local VFD know the date(s) and burn what you have not sold.

Otherwise, mesquite spreads. It does so at the expense of grass, wildflowers, springs, streams, and pretty much anything short of kudzu and cockroaches. It is excellent at surviving, and actually poisons the ground around it’s self to prevent competition. Cows and other things eat the seed pods, then leave the now fertilized seeds well away from the parent plant. To see a pasture filling with mesquite or yucca means that some one is not taking care of the land, either with controlled burns, or grubbing, or proper grazing management.

Once you get a critical mesquite mass, nothing short of mechanical intervention or a very bad fire will stop it. Mesquite burns exceedingly hot once it gets going, and mature plants are somewhat flame resistant, but not fireproof. A mesquite tree, like you find in central Texas, can withstand a low or creeping fire. The brushy version like we have out here burns a little more easily. When it does, Katy bar the door. Yes, it is good for the land in the long run, but it is rough on the critters, plants, and people in the here-and-now.

Mesquite also sends roots down as well as out. It can reach the water table in many cases, and sucks up lots of water. This can dry up springs and seeps, depriving critters and birds of water. Over time, enough mesquite will dry up streams.

Yes, mesquite is a native plant. It does full a useful role in the ecosystem, when it is present in moderation and checked either by fire or by human action. But like other native plants, when it is no longer checked by fire or pests, it causes species and habitat loss.

We do need to keep it around, however, Otherwise no one up here would know when to plant tomatoes. You never, ever plant tomatoes until the mesquite blooms. Then you’re safe from hard freezes. Before then? You have no one to blame but your foolishly optimistic self when you wake up to seedling-cicles.

*If you smoke meat using mesquite, keep it at the far end of your firebox, so the smoke can cool a little before it reaches the meat. That is, unless you really like a crunchy, thick black carbon crust on your ribs et al.


9 thoughts on “Mesquite and Land Management

  1. Briars and wild grape get almost as bad in the East. Spent one summer getting control of a pesky 20ft deep swath across the end of our property. Call it a lot of aerobic and stretching exercise. I was ready to call in a backhoe, until I traced three tap roots to the same vine group. A D-8 would have accidentally re-graded the ravine and sewer line as it climbed out after sliding down clay and broken shale. *Tempting*, but embarrassing.

  2. Yep, there are two sides to the Mesquite equation. Sadly, the cost for grubbing it out is up to around $5000/acre. From what I understand, JA has at least one person on the ranch staff that does nothing but that every day. I also remember your comment about Palo Duro how the water used to flow from the sides of the canyon, before the land was overrun by Mesquite.

  3. Ah, mesquite. There’s a reason I like mesquite-smoked salt; I figure it’s encouraging people to rip it out and burn the plant, one dish at a time. Oh, and it’s tasty.

  4. California has a similar plant with the exact same habits. The manzanita and its cousin, the madrone tree, have extremely oily wood, are natives in a semi -desert area and have to be rigorously managed and limited. The madrone, like tree mesquite, can survive a quick moving fire. It is not particularly water greedy and can be easily managed. The manzanita? It’s the scourge of the mid-range Sierra Nevada foothills.
    It creates dense thickets, choking out other growth. It survives mostly through the winter rains and snow pack, with the addition of the spring runoff. As the weather and the area dries and becomes hotter, manzanita becomes the major fire hazard in the foothills. Manzanita is one of the reasons there have been catastrophic fire seasons in the last few years.
    The insistence of the various eco-warrior groups on not allowing management of the density of the undergrowth in the forest and foothill areas has not only allowed the growth of tinder fuel, it has made the manzanita a major contributor to the loss of lives and towns.

    • And when you try to point out to the eco-warrior-types that “the Native Americans practiced controlled burning and land management in order to prevent this sort of thing,” they splutter, and fuss, and say things like, “but that’s different!” SIGH.

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