History of Saltcedar in New Mexico

Saltcedar first made its way to North America from Europe, Africa, and Asia in the 1820's, but it wasn't until the late 19th century that the plant began its invasive march across riparian areas in the Southwest (McFerraz, 2004). In New Mexico, saltcedar was introduced "between 1900 and 1940 to facilitate water transportation, reduce flooding and sedimentation, and to enhance irrigation return flows" (McFerraz, 2004). Although its introduction was aimed at benefiting New Mexico, saltcedar has quickly overstepped its boundaries and now covers more than 500,000 acres in New Mexico alone; it is estimated that if no viable, long-term solution is implemented, that saltcedar could eventually infest 650,000 to 900,000 acres by 2013 (McFerraz, 2004).

What Is Saltcedar And Why Is It A Threat?

Saltcedar, also known as tamarisk (from the genus Tamarix), is an invasive species, a type of plant that is introduced into a foreign ecosystem, is able to survive, and successionally takes over habitat from native species. The term "invasive" does not necessarily mean that the plants are aggressive or that they do excess harm to the environment or economy. Saltcedar, though, does have many attributes that give it advantages over native species. The plants extract salt from the soil substrate and the salt is deposited in the leaves, sometimes in concentrations of up to 15% (McFerraz, 2004, McDaniel et al., 2005). When the leaves fall off, the plant material eventually decomposes and the salts find their way back into the soil, increasing the concentration of salt in the top layers of soil (McDaniel et al., 2005). This creates poor soil conditions for native species to grow in, but conditions that saltcedar is well suited to. Fire frequency is higher in areas dominated by saltcedar and the plant is fire-adapted, able to better utilize resources after a fire than native plants (McDaniel et al., 2005). In addition to being fire-adapted and out-competing native species for water and resources, a single saltcedar plant can produce as many as 500,000 seeds in a single season, which remain viable for up to five weeks and can germinate in as little as twenty-four hours (McFerraz, 2004). These physical attributes of saltcedar allow it to spread at a rapid rate, taking over large amounts of land in New Mexico's riparian areas and resulting in several adverse effects on the environment. As discussed earlier, saltcellar's invasive nature means that it out-competes, and therefore displaces, native plants and animals. There is a higher frequency of fires in areas infested with saltcedar, and because of its high moisture content, fires in saltcedar stands must be hotter than they normally would. By leeching salts from the soil substrate and concentrating them on the surface, saltcedar is destroying our soil's health.