Ep. 65Fire in the Southwest Series, Ep.2: The Grassification of the Sonoran Desert with Ecologist Mary Lata

What is it like to watch vegetation type-conversion in real time? How are invasive grasses changing the ecology of the desert and broader Southwest? What’s being done to protect and restore Southwest ponderosa pine forests? 

This episode with Tonto National Forest fire ecologist Mary Lata dives into the fire regimes of the Southwest, how they’re changing by the year, how invasive grasses are influencing those changes, and particularly how she’s beginning to see more fire in the Sonoran Desert, which historically did not burn very often. We also spoke about her work within the Four Forest Restoration Project, which aims to restore and protect the significant ponderosa pine forests within the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests. 

Mary was preparing for a public meeting the day of our conversation and had a few great slides that she showed me during our conversation, so I’ve uploaded the full video of our conversation to Youtube for folks who would like some more context for the topics we discussed in the podcast. 

This episode and our entire series on Fire in the Southwest was made possible with support from The Southwest Fire Science Consortium  and the Arizona Wildfire Initiative.

Photo above courtesy of Frankie Lopez.


01:11 – Introduction

05:42 – Mary’s Background and Career

10:04 – Four Forest Restoration Initiative

13:05 – Growing up Near Badlands National Park

15:33 – Different Ecosystems and Fire Regimes of the Southwest

17:19 – The Sonoran Desert

19:39 – Witnessing Desert Conversion Over Time

20:14 – Should Human-Caused Ignitions Be Part Of A Fire Regime?

22:05 – Lightning Caused Fires Versus Human Caused Fire

23:52 – Mary’s Love of Nebraska

27:01 – Grasslands In The Great Plains

30:36 – Current Restoration Work and Climate Change Impacts on Southwest Fire Regimes

34:11 – What is Assisted Migration and Can It Help The Southwest?

38:04 – The Changing Role Of Disturbance In Grassland Systems

39:24 – Grassification of the Sonoran Desert. 

45:13 – Outro

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