Great Basin Pinyon-Juniper Forests Under Threat

Healthy Nevada forests could be clearcut under proposed BLM project

Standing in a pinyon-juniper forest on a high slope above Cave Valley not far from Ely, Nevada, I am lost in an ancient vision. It is a vision born under sublime skies stretching above wide, flat valleys bounded by the dramatic mountains of the Great Basin. The vision grows with the rising flames of the sun in the east. As the morning passes, the sun shines through pine needles and juniper branches to dapple the forest in silvers and golds. The trees offer shade where patches of snow glimmer with the smallest sounds of melting. Pinyon pine cones are scattered across the ground. As they open, their seeds — nourishing pine nuts — become visible. Beautiful, blue-feathered pinyon jays gather the nuts in their beak before flying off to cache them for the deepening winter. This vision is now threatened by the latest in a series of what the BLM calls “vegetation treatment projects” that would see the forests clear-cut.

Photo of clear-cut pinyon-juniper forestPhoto by Max Wilbert Clear-cut pinyon-juniper forest that has been “chained” by crawler tractors.

Humans have long participated in the landscape. For thousands of years, in this part of the Great Basin, Shoshones and Goshutes have stood looking out at valleys like this one as they gathered the pine nuts that provided the most important winter food source and made it possible for humans to live in the Great Basin’s harsh climate. As I let my imagination flow into the past, I see hundreds of generations of Shoshones and Goshutes living well off the gifts the land freely offered. Living in this way, I know their relationship with the land could have lasted forever. Pinyon pines could have gone on offering their pine nuts to humans and wildlife alike. Junipers could have gone on twisting in wooden gymnastics and growing their bundles of blue berries.

A herd of cattle catches my attention and I remember that this is just a vision, after all. The presence of cattle, here, forces me to confront the reality of the Great Basin’s ongoing destruction. An anxiety accompanies the cattle. It is the anxiety that flows from the knowledge of ecological collapse.

Following the slow steps of brown and black cows, I see a metallic glint on the valley floor where streamers are tied onto fences built by ranchers so that sage grouse don’t fly into the fences and kill themselves. I have seen the bundles of feathers and blood mangled and stuck in the wire fences. The cattle march to a shallow pond. A thin, but growing ring of algae floats on the pond’s surface while piles of cow shit litter sandy soil stripped of any vegetation. From the pond comes a strangled, gurgling sound. Despite the drought, water is being pumped from already strained wells to support the cattle.

The valley floor is striped in green and yellow patches. The green patches represent healthy, native sage brush and the yellow patches represent invasive crested wheat grass. I have learned how in the 1950s and 60s, the Bureau of Land Management initiated a series of projects designed to strip away sage brush to replace it with imported Asian crested wheat grass. Not long after, white settlement cattle herds wiped out most of the native grasses in the Great Basin, including the sage brush. Loss of the sage brush has had disastrous consequences, including contributing to the collapse of sage grouse populations, which, as their name suggests, require healthy sage brush for habitat.

Above the valley floors, where the pinyon-juniper forests drape across the mountains’ shoulders, are brown swaths cut into the land where the forests have fallen victim to the BLM’s so-called “vegetation treatment projects.” These vegetation treatment projects are really just clear-cuts justified by the BLM as “providing woodland products to the public,” “maintaining sage brush habitat,” and offering “protection of property and infrastructure.”

As my experience of this ancient landscape disintegrates with the reminders of the processes threatening life in the Great Basin, I remember why I came here. I came because friends of mine had asked me to write about threats to pinyon-juniper forests, and I had heard of the BLM’s practice of clear-cutting pinyon-juniper forests in the region. I had never seen a clear-cut pinyon-juniper forest before, I knew very little about the Great Basin at all, and I’ve always thought the best way to write about the land is to seek a true relationship with it.

So, my friend — the great activist, writer, and photographer Max Wilbert — flew from Eugene, Oregon to Utah to meet me, and we set off from my home in Park City to Nevada to see both living and clear-cut pinyon-juniper forests firsthand. We met up with Katie Fite, a biologist and the board secretary for the environmental protection group WildLands Defense. Fite brings over 30 years of on-the-ground experience to environmental advocacy, and is an expert in Great Basin’s ecology.

When we arrive in the Great Basin, I walk through the shades and shadows of a healthy pinyon-juniper forest. Songbirds create music celebrating the beauty of their home. Social ravens gossip back and forth diving down to ask who I am. From time to time, I catch a grey glimpse of a rabbit bounding out of my path. The gentle hooting of an owl falls from the treetops. Though I am several hundred yards from any of my companions, separated by ridge lines and hundreds of trees, I do not feel alone. A sense of deep familiarity, the feeling shared when friends gather, settles over me.

It is November 19. The full cycle of seasons in the Great Basin carries the range of temperature extremes. The summers are dry and hot and the winters are frigid with plenty of snow. Even a single day in the Great Basin reflects these extremes. Last night dropped below freezing and I woke with a crisp layer of frost on my sleeping bag at dawn.

In cold times like these, the slopes of the mountains are the warmest place to be, because, as the sun comes up and heats the air on the valley floor, the warm air rises. The slopes of the mountains are also where the pinyon-juniper forests are. By mid-morning, the sun is strong and hot. Even though it was cold last night, the temperature is above 60 degrees Fahrenheit by noon. The forests, then, are the most comfortable places to be in both the cold night and the hot day, warmer at night and than the valley floors, and offering shade when the sun beats down during the day.

I feel I could walk through the forest like this for miles. Then, the trees abruptly stop. The shade ceases and the sun strikes my eyes with a physical force. A cold wind, driven wild over unbroken space, slaps my face. The sudden openness is a shock. I almost trip. Behind me is a living forest, before me is a void. I have stepped into a clear-cut.

To my left for a mile, to my right for a mile, and for a quarter mile across, the land is brown. The long limbs of pinyon pines slump across the gnarled trunks of junipers. These clear-cuts are tree massacres.

I can tell this particular clear-cut was “chained.” Crawler tractor tracks criss-cross the ground. Mature trees have been pulled up by their roots while saplings not yet 18 inches tall, survived the trauma. Chaining is a practice employed by the BLM and is done by stretching a US Navy battle-ship anchor chain between two crawler tractors. The tractors are driven parallel to each other, dragging the chain across the forest floor, and uprooting everything in the chain’s path.

The area chosen for chaining has no logic, no reason behind it. The clear-cut follows no straight lines. The path the crawler tractors took follows no pre-conceived geometric plan. No one mapped out where trees would be cut and where they wouldn’t. The cut looks more like the devastating consequence of a petulant child’s temper tantrum than the cold-calculations of forestry professionals.

Moving through the middle of the clear-cut, the worst part is the silence. The silence is more than the absence of sound. This is a spiritual silence. The void seeps from the empty space where a forest once stood and flows into my consciousness. Where moments before I was surrounded by life, now there is nothing. Nothing, except the rotting corpses of a once thriving forest community.

The history of pinyon-juniper deforestation in the Great Basin as well as a list of justifications and motivations for deforestation is too long, perhaps, for one essay. The storyline includes dominance of ranching and mining interests in Nevada, a government bureaucracy that consistently drinks the kool-aid prepared by ranchers and miners, the historical amnesia that characterizes settler colonialism, insidious racism, blatant genocide, and what pinyon-juniper expert Ronald Lanner calls dendrophobia, or fear of trees, “for which there seems to be no treatment.”

The history is a glimpse into the dominant culture’s insanity. There was a truly sustainable way to live in the Great Basin, but the arrival of European settlers doomed that way of life. The Shoshones and Goshutes lived for thousands of years in the basin, hunting game in the spring and summer and gathering pine-nuts in the fall. Ronalder Lanner, in his foundational work The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History, explains that this sustainability involved understanding how to manage their populations so the land’s ability to support humans would not be drawn down. He also credits pinyon pine-nuts as the essential food source that made it possible for humans to live in the region.

European settlers arrived in droves in the 1860s looking for precious metals and bringing their “white man’s buffalo” (domesticated cattle). They began establishing mines, and relied on pinyon-juniper forests for wood to support the mining industry. Lanner explains: “The production of mineral riches would not have been possible in nineteenth century Nevada without the pinyon woodlands and their vast supplies of wood. The opening of a mine was only the first of many operations necessary to convert hard rock into treasure. Huge labor forces had to be brought in to work the mines and to build and operate stamp mills, smelters, amalgamators, and concentrators. Lumber in enormous quantities was needed for these operations: timbers for shoring the mine shafts, charcoal for smelting ore, cordwood for heating and cooking. The great Nevada silver boom ran on wood.”

Lanner goes on to quantify the destruction of the forests, and the numbers are devastating. He explains the destruction around Eureka, Nevada in the 1870s: “A typical yield of pinyon pine was ten cords per acre, and a cord made about 30 bushels of charcoal. So the furnaces of Eureka, working at capacity, could in a single day devour over 530 cords of pinyon, the produce of over 50 acres. An additional 20 acres a day were being cut to provide cordwood for the mills. After one year of major activity, the hills around Eureka were bare for ten miles in every direction. By 1874, the wasteland extended twenty miles from town, and by 1878 the woodland was nowhere closer than fifty miles from Eureka.”

As is so often true, the destruction of the land is the destruction of the land’s original peoples. Lanner describes the situation in Nevada as a “vicious circle” in which the Shoshone were forced into the wage economy. First, mining and urban activities consumed pinyon-juniper forests the Shoshone relied on for food. “The more these food sources were destroyed, the more dependent the Indians became on wages; and the more they engaged in lumbering and ranching for white men, the more they destroyed their food sources.” In the 1880s and 1890s, the mining industry collapsed, pinyon-juniper forests were decimated, imported cattle were eating away native grasses, and the Shoshone traditional way of life was all but impossible.

The 1950s ushered in the next era of pinyon-juniper deforestation as ranchers looked to expand their grazing lands. Lanner notes that, since the earliest white settlements were established in the Great Basin, accessible tracts of woodland had always been grazed. And as demand for red meat increased after World War two, “the Forest Service started carving up National Forest woodlands with bulldozers and chains, hoping to create greener pastures.”

Though the war on forests persists to today, the BLM has sought to justify it with novel arguments. A recent public scoping notice published on September 29, 2015 by the BLM’s Sierra Front Field Office in the Carson City District is illustrative. With this notice, the BLM proposes to clearcut 30,387 acres in Nevada’s Virginia Mountains. In the BLM’s own language, “proposed treatments include mechanical mastication, mechanical removal, hand cutting, chemical treatments, chaining, and seeding.”

It is not within the scope of this essay to address the problems with each of the BLM’s justifications for the project. Many of the justifications require their own, full essay. But here are several of the biggest issues. The BLM’s public notice regarding the vegetation treatment project makes no attempt to hide ranching interests as a primary purpose for the treatments, stating that one purpose is “to maintain and enhance rangeland health.” The problem with this is the Great Basin is not rangeland. The valley floors are naturally covered in sage brush and the highlands are pinyon-juniper forests. Converting the forests into rangeland is only possible through destructive deforestation.

The BLM also justifies the deforestation by explaining that, “A large focus of this project would be to improve and protect greater sage-grouse habitat, and treatments would be designed to address threats to greater sage-grouse from invasive annual grasses, wildfires, and conifer expansion.” Of course, it was the BLM’s own disastrous policy of sage brush clearing that led to the sage grouse collapse in the first place. The BLM goes on to blame invasive annual grasses (most of which were brought to the Great Basin by settler activities), wildfires (exacerbated by human-created climate change, drought, and the planting of imported grasses that burn more quickly than native grasses), and finally conifer expansion for sage grouse declines. By conifer expansion, the BLM is referring to pinyon-juniper forests that are simply regrowing in regions where they had been cut down by the mining operations of the 1870s.

The BLM’s proposed deforestation projects in the Virginia Mountain range is merely one of hundreds of similar projects that have been conducted since the 1960s. Proposals for similar projects are currently pending in BLM offices throughout the Great Basin.

Take action: A coalition of allied activists is in the early stages of planning a campaign to save these beautiful, essential, ancient forests. Learn more here.

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