Reversing Desertification


Man-made desertification impacts climate change more than the burning of all fossil fuels. This includes contributions to greenhouse gasses, and overall warming.

The good news is that this is pretty easy to mend.

First, the problem: the deserts in America are getting bigger and hotter. Where there were once forests, there is now vast expanses of sand and rock with little to no vegetation. And it is the same story for nearly all deserts in the world.

And there are places that are currently not deserts, but are well on their way to becoming deserts.


There are many times when places around Missoula – or in Montana, are very desert-like. Especially Eastern Montana.

Is the Missoula area going through desertification? How long will it be until the few forests we have won’t grow without irrigation? Will the rivers dry up?

I want to share the simple solution, and, more importantly, I want to use and abuse these techniques in such a way to make my garden more resilient.

There are dozens of possible solutions. None of which use irrigation. The most popular techniques include swaleshugelkultur beds, mulch, and paddock shift grazing. While one small technique will usually help, the best results come from combining several.

Some of the key players working on a massive scale in this space are Geoff Lawton, Allan Savory, and Owen Hablutzel.

Geoff Lawton, Director of Permaculture Research Institute (PRI), has been focusing efforts in the Dead Sea Valley (Greening the Desert) to reverse the desertification of that area.  I have produced numerous podcasts in discussion with him (also, he gave a TED talk!)

According to Allan Savory, farmer, scientist and founder of Holistic Management International (HMI), “It isn’t climate change but our management that is causing desertification … and desertification is a major component of climate change.”  Savory suggests that livestock, when properly managed, are essential to land restoration – that raising cattle can be used to combat global climate change.

At the recent Permaculture Voices convergence in Temecula, California, Allan Savory expanded on the livestock solution. To paraphrase: Even if everyone in the world becomes vegan and no livestock whatsoever is used as a food source, our choices are: use ruminants in a holistic grazing manner to reverse desertification and live as vegans, or we can continue living in our current manner, and we will all die as vegans. It is that simple. Properly grazing ruminants is the only thing that will save us.

The science and experience behind Savory’s innovations, citing his work in Africa using elephants as the primary tool to heal the water cycle and reverse desertification, is presented by Savory himself in this short but informational clip:


Allan Savory – EXTRACTS – Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis? from Feasta on Vimeo.

Many others are continuing the work of reversing desertification, such as Owen Hablutzel, a Certified Holistic Educator with HMI as well as Director of Lawton’s USA branch of the Permaculture Research Institute.  Hablutzel also trains farmers and ranchers onkeylining – an approach to farm and ranch planning featuring a sub-soil plowing technique. Hablutzel describes keylining as a low-cost investment with a high soil fertility return across the landscape.

Look at this before and after picture.

The left picture is a farm in New Mexico.  The picture on the right is the same land, only with very tall weeds growing a year after Hablutzel keylined there.  He applied only one technique – keylining:  no seeding, no irrigation.  Pretty impressive.

Here is Hablutzel talking on water and transformation on dry land systems, resilience science and keyline application:



See the entire Paul Wheaton archive.

paul-wheaton-bioPaul Wheaton is the tyrannical dictator of, the largest permaculture forum on the web. As a certified master gardener and permaculture designer, he’s built an empire around what he calls, ‘infecting brains with permaculture’. His forums are full of rich information, and there are a number of great free resources, guides, and articles that can be found on his sister site, as well.

Most recently, he has worked with rocket mass heater experts Ernie and Erica in developing a DVD set on making your own rocket mass heater, and has produced another video series on permaculture gardening, which detail how to use hugelkultur, swales, and natural ponds to capture and utilize water without irrigation. His recent work with natural buildings based on Mike Oehler’s designs have resulted in the creation of the Wofati, a semi underground natural home design.

Crowned the Duke of Permaculture by Geoff Lawton and the Bad Boy of Permaculture by the Occupy Monsanto movement, Paul continues to educate and inspire at his property – dubbed Wheaton Labs – in western Montana, where he conducts experiments in permaculture and natural building, hosts workshops, and entertains the curious passerby. More information on stays at the property can be found here.