Centennial Museum gecko logo

Desert Diary


This page was designed with CSS, and looks best in a CSS-aware browser—which, unfortunately, yours is not. However, the document should still be readable, though not presented in the most sophisticated manner.

The first Spanish to enter our region saw a desert different than today's, thanks to a phenomenon called desertification. Although characterized variously, Texas Tech's Harold Dregne's definition involves the land's deterioration as measured by harmful changes in the numbers and kinds of living things, increasing both soil deterioration and hazards for human livelihood.

Dregne classifies our entire arid region as severely desertified. Overgrazing, especially, has injured the land, beginning with the Spanish introduction of cattle and becoming widespread by the early 1800s on both sides of the border. The arrival of the railroads later in that century increased cattle profits, worsening a bad situation.

One study, based on land-survey notes taken mostly in the 60 years subsequent to 1857, revealed once widespread grasslands with few shrubs. Creosotebush, for example, was restricted to well-drained, gravelly hilltops and narrow patches in the mountain foothills. A major conclusion was that the soil layer necessary to support this desert grassland is long gone.

Although the Chihuahuan Desert remains a place of beauty and awe, the footprint of man lies heavily upon it.
pen and ink

Listen to the Audio (mp3 format) as recorded by KTEP, Public Radio for the Southwest.


Contributor: Arthur H. Harris, Laboratory for Environmental Biology, University of Texas at El Paso.

Desert Diary is a joint production of the Centennial Museum and KTEP National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso.

overgrazed countryside with duststorm

Overgrazed land with a late afternoon dust storm approaching from the west. Photograph by A.H. Harris.



Cooke, R.H., and R. W. Reeves. 1976. Arroyos and Environmental Change in the American Southwest. Clarendon Press, Oxford, England, 213 pp.

Dregne, H. E. 1986. Desertification of arid lands. In Physics of desertification, El-Baz and M. H. A. Hassan, editors. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus, Nijhoff.

York, J. C., and W. A. Dick-Peddie. 1969. Vegetation Changes in Southern New Mexico During the Past Hundred Years. Pp. 157-166, in W. G. McGinnies and B. J. Goldman, editors. Arid Lands in Perspective. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C., and University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Web Resources

Center for International Earth Science Information network.