Soil Ecology Restoration Group

last update April 13, 2000

Anthropogenic Degradation of the Southern California Desert Ecosystem and Prospects for Natural Recovery and Restoration



Large areas of the southern California desert ecosystem have been negatively affected by off-highway vehicle use, overgrazing by domestic livestock, agriculture, urbanization, construction of roads and utility corridors, air pollution, military training exercises, and other activities. Secondary contributions to degradation include the proliferation of exotic plant species and a higher frequency of anthropogenic fire. Effects of these impacts include alteration or destruction of macro- and micro- vegetation elements, establishment of annual plant communities dominated by exotic species, destruction of soil stabilizers, soil compaction, and increased erosion. Published establishments of recovery time are based on return to predisturbance levels of biomass, cover, density, community structure, or soil characteristics. Natural recovery rates depend on the nature and severity of the impact but are generally very slow. Recovery to predisturbance plant cover and biomass may take 50-300 years, while complete ecosystem recovery may require over 3000 years. Restorative intervention can be used to enhance the success and rate of recovery, but the costs are high and the probability for long term success is low to moderate. Given the sensitivity of desert habitats to disturbance and the slow rate of natural recovery, the best management option is to limit the extent and intensity of impacts as much as possible.