The Zuni conservation trust fund

The Zuni people have farmed the area of the present Zuni Reservation in western New Mexico, the United States for more than 1 500 years. They are well known for their knowledge of using floodwater irrigation to breed and produce traditional varieties of maize, beans, squash and other plants in this arid climate.

Zuni farming has been successful because of its integration in culture and society, and its tradition of managing resources sustainably. Over recent generations, however, farmed area has decreased from 12 000 acres to about 1 000 acres (4 860 to 405 ha). Reasons for this decline include a growth in alternative sources of food and jobs and the degradation of soil and water resources.

The Zuni tribe sued the United States government in 1978 for damage to federal land through mismanagement related to trust responsibilities. After ten years of litigation, the case was settled out of court and a trust fund of US$17 million was established through the Zuni Land Conservation Act of 1990 to restore the watershed using indigenous methods of land and water management.

The resulting Zuni Indian Resource Development Trust Fund is a permanent fund, with the interest generated going to a variety of environmentally sustainable projects, including fish and wildlife, range conservation, hydrology monitoring, erosion control and a native seed bank. The project has created nearly 50 jobs, making it one of the region’s major employers.

In 1992, a tribally run Zuni Conservation Project was formed and a watershed restoration plan prepared to meet the needs of the community. User groups formed around issues that were raised at community-based, consensus building planning workshops. Project activities had to be approved by a tribal council of elders.

One activity involved Zuni women implementing indigenous methods of growing subsistence crops in waffle gardens near their homes to provide foods historically grown in this high desert ecosystem, such as squash, maize and beans. The gardens’ design and the use of rock mulching and swales are based on revived traditional techniques that conserve water, soil and nutrients in an arid landscape.

Another activity identified highly eroded areas, including sheet erosion caused by improper land uses and active gullies and arroyos. Management plans were prepared to restore eroded grazing land through animal control, riparian protection, upstream water spreading structures, vegetative swales, and brush and rock structures to encourage the infiltration of runoff during intense summer precipitation events. Riparian protection includes the restoration of channel meandering to allow water to reach floodplains during intense summer precipitation events. Eroding stream channels have been stabilized with vegetation, through grazing management and small water spreading structures. Upstream swales slow runoff on highly compacted soils, encouraging increased infiltration and vegetative restoration. A methodology for monitoring riparian health and water quality by local volunteers has been taught to high school students. Annual monitoring of the percentage of fine sediment in stream channels has been found to be a reliable indicator of progress in watershed restoration activities.

A geographic information system (GIS) mapping activity established existing land uses and targeted priority areas in need of restoration. Most Zuni grazing lands are fragile, semi-arid grass-, shrub and woodlands with high erosion potential. Water distribution systems for livestock (horses, cattle and sheep) have been extended to allow eroded areas to recover and to distribute animals more evenly across the watershed. An important finding from experimental gully control measures is that brush and rock structures built by hand with on-site materials perform better in erosion control than larger and more expensive earth or cement check dams. While the simple structures fill with silt and trap water for vegetation growth, most of the larger check dams were washed out by intense summer thunderstorms, causing gully deepening and bank erosion.

last updated:  Friday, January 12, 2007