Pinyon and juniper trees, demonized by ranchers, miners and water mining entities, are being eyed by Chinese “biomass” companies with the backing of politicians.

Recently the Nevada Pinyon-Juniper Partnership, aided by USDA, set up a conference to discuss pinyon and juniper trees. At the conference were several players in government and business who have an interest in the removal of pinyon and juniper trees in the Great Basin. Bob Abbey, the director of the BLM, attended the meeting.

Pinyon Juniper Forest, Nevada.  Photo - Katie Fite

Pinyon Juniper Forest, Nevada. Photo – Katie Fite

Most people don’t think of the Great Basin when they think of old growth forests but the pinyon-juniper forests there are ancient forests with several hundred year old trees that provide important habitats and food for many species of birds like pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, black throated gray warblers, small mammals, nesting raptors. The charismatic seed-caching Clark’s nutcracker faces catastrophic food shortages in the Rockies due to whitebark pine die-off. It relies on large-seeded pines – and the pinyon pine has a superb large seed that was also vital to supporting Native American cultures in the Great Basin.

The refuge provided by these trees are probably the only reason that central Nevada has any elk at all. They are one of the important components that keep the entire Great Basin Ecosystem together because they retain snow later into the year due to their shade and absorb CO2. Their destruction would promote global warming and desertification by making the area hotter and drier.

After the masticator. Photo - Katie Fite

After the masticator. Photo – Katie Fite

The history of animosity towards pinyon juniper trees is a long one. As with sagebrush, for many years ranchers have been getting BLM and FS to use our tax dollars to fund removal of p-j forests to promote livestock forage. They recruited the College of Agriculture at the University of Nevada, Reno, to concoct biased science to justify p-j killing projects. Test projects were initiated, but not evaluated, where p-j forests were chained, cut down or burned, that often resulted in unforeseen (to some) effects such as cheatgrass invasion. A false comparison was concocted where researchers claimed that p-j forests should have an open understory like seen in ponderosa pine forests which are subject to frequent repeated fires. Generally p-j forests are subject to small, spotty fires or major stand replacing fires.

By conveniently ignoring the fact that the p-j forests were heavily utilized during the mining days of the 19th century for fueling smelters, ranchers try to promote the false assertion that p-j are “encroaching” into areas where they previously didn’t grow when, in actuality, they are recolonizing areas where they were cut down. Proposals to destroy p-j forests by dragging huge chains between two tractors were made but they were shot down in court by Western Watersheds Project in 2002 so the proponents of p-j thinning have gone back to the drawing board.

Now it is being claimed that p-j are responsible for reductions in sage grouse populations because sage grouse avoid areas with tall structures or trees used by avian predators for perches to prey on them. This has been a very convenient argument because it distracts away from the fact that a century and a half of overgrazing has brought devastating changes in the form of weeds, sagebrush destruction, soil erosion, increased fire frequency, and other habitat degradation to the lower elevation areas that sage grouse depend on. While the ranchers squeeze the lower elevation habitat they are putting pressure on the agencies to kill p-j on higher elevation habitat under the guise of sage grouse “habitat restoration”.

On top of this pressure from the ranchers, foreign mining companies, who have bought up ranches and gained control of a number of grazing allotments, eye the p-j with disdain because the trees are in the way of expansion of existing and new mines. If the trees are cut down under another guise then it is easier to argue that they should be allowed to expand their operations. Another proponent of p-j thinning in Nevada is the water mining Southern Nevada Water Authority who has also bought up ranches and gained control of a number of grazing allotments. They eye the p-j with disdain because they transpire precious water that they want to mine and pipe to water Las Vegas.

Now a new player enters the p-j matrix. With the support of Senator Harry Reid, county commissioners, and ranchers, A-Power, a Chinese company, is pushing to use the p-j for “biomass” to fuel power generating facilities. Nothing could be more unsustainable than using ancient forests of the Great Basin for biomass.

Interestingly, a Chinese windmill assembly plant near Las Vegas is controlled by an entity named RePower that also has curried favor with Reid.

In an effort to move forward with landscape level p-j destruction projects a number of groups are formulating a plan for a 2 million acre “demonstration project” where they would thin the forests using money from the sales of public lands under the authority of the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act or other federal funds that are supposed to be used for sage grouse restoration. This money would then be funneled through the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition which is a non-profit with a history of funding research which supports vegetation killing under the guise of “habitat restoration”. This would be done to reduce federal contracting requirements. As recently as 2008, current BLM director Bob Abbey was a “trustee” of the ENLC.

Great Basin pine nuts are prized, limited harvest occurs, and the value of nut production would far exceed the value of beef that could be produced by the destroyed land.

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About The Author

Ken Cole

Ken Cole, Western Watershed Project’s Idaho Director, is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is also serves as a member of the board of directors for Buffalo Field Campaign.

46 Responses to War on Trees: Harry Reid, Ag Extension Agents, and Chinese biomass companies promote liquidation of old growth forests……. in Nevada

  1. avatar imStein says:

    NO !

  2. avatar Immer Treue says:

    Makes no sense. How much snow falls up there in the Winter? What could/would potential run-off be with nothing to stop it?

  3. Is there any “biomass” proposal out there that isn’t in fact brown as hell, even though they are portrayed as green energy sources?

  4. avatar Craig says:

    Ralph have you kept up on all the dealings going on with China and Idaho? It’s scary! We are selling out or trying to sell out to generate jobs and lose everything we cherish for profit and backdoor deals for politicians!

  5. Craig,

    No I haven’t except for the use of Highway 12 to the international oil companies.

  6. avatar Idaho Dave says:

    I believe one can debate the rusults of removing these trees.
    The forage available to grazers which include deer, elk, wild sheep and cattle is very limited. Grass does not grow under or close to these trees. Removing the trees and reseeding with native forbes and wild grasses produces more forage. yes, the trees provide a lot of cover and usually stands are left for cover , as I understand it anyway.

  7. avatar Linda Hunter says:

    It isn’t about replanting because it is about just plain ruining the dirt. Without healthy dirt, minus artificial and harmful means of getting something to grow there, humans will become extinct sooner than our fast track of doing so is going now.

    • avatar Idaho Dave says:

      I disagree, because without the replanting of native forbes and grasses, cheat grass and other weeds will take over.
      If you will notice the ground in the picture it is covered with mulch. The tree that were removed were ground up and spread as mulch, which does improve the soil.

      • avatar dcooke says:

        Clear cutting native plants was good for soil?? .. because the barren ground was mulched.. ?? Sorry, i’m having trouble with the logic here.

    • Are they replanting nature forbs and grasses, or are they planting cultivars of native grasses and exotics like crested wheatgrass?

      How long are cattle kept off of the “treated” areas after clearing, and if it is done to benefit elk, where are cattle even let on the treated areas since cattle and elk eat almost the same thing in Nevada.

      I hope RMEF gets a concession that any clearing they help pay for will not be used for cattle grazing.

      • avatar Idaho Dave says:

        I doubt that cattle grazing is elminated. it is probably curtailed during the early stages to allow growth, though. What benfits one usually benefits the other one in this case. For the most part these projects take place in areas that the local Fish and Game has deemed in need. WMA, Natl Forest, BLM, etc.
        I don’t what grasses they plant by name.

      • Idaho Dave,

        I don’t think cattle grazing is being eliminated either, and I agree with you that it is probably curtailed during early stages to allow the grass to develop a good root system.

        However, elk and cattle have more overlap between what they eat than any other native ungulate. I think it is rare when vegetation changes made to benefit cattle also benefit elk. At best, they don’t hurt the elk.

      • avatar Mark Gamblin (IDFG) says:

        Ralph, Idaho Dave, others:
        I’m following this string with interest because juniper management is one important tool we (IDFG) are pursuing as a priority for diversifying wildlife habitat where junipers have greatly encroached over the past 150 years. Juniper encroachment is a reality in the intermountain west for a variety of reasons – fire control (restriction of natural fire cycles) being one important factor. The water demand and adaptive chemical defense mechanisms by juniper results in highly simplified stands of that junipers – with limited habitat value for diverse wildlife communities. I am specifically referring to juniper management challenges in Idaho – not pinion pine/juniper communities in Nevada – different plant community dynamics with different management issues than we have. Well designed treatments (reductions) of large, dense juniper stands will provide a mosaic of juniper, grass, sagebrush and other native species and will result in more productive and diversified wildlife habitat than the alternative. Full disclosure – the IDFG works closely with and supports the BLM, USFS and others to design and carry out as one strategy for mule deer enhancement in Idaho. Obviously, we believe these projects also have value for a more diverse wildlife community. Livestock grazing will benefit as well.

      • avatar JB says:

        These habitat modifications are useful insomuch as the bring about a desirable result. (Side note: Leopold (1933, p.3) defined game management as “the art of making land produce sustained annual crops of wild game [desired product] for recreational use.”) However, they can be taken too far. In my policy class, I teach a paper by Ben Peyton entitled, “Wildlife management: cropping to manage or managing to crop?” In my opinion, this paper gets at the underlying issue of many public lands debates today by questioning the central purpose of wildlife and, I would argue, natural resources management, in general–that is, to what extent should we manipulate systems to bring about desired outcomes? Do we modify habitat to create desired annual crops of wildlife (or other resources), or do we use management surgically to clip population surpluses–to trim around the edges?

        These questions have no right nor wrong answers–or more accurately, what is right or wrong depends upon one’s point of view. The assumptions we make about what is “natural”, “desirable”, “good”, or of value generally guide our judgments. If more people would recognize and acknowledge this, we could get past the silly jabs and one-liners that pervade such discussions.

      • avatar Elk275 says:

        JB

        Thumbs up on your post.

      • avatar Mark Gamblin (IDFG) says:

        I second Elk’s thumbs up for JB’s post. This is the discussion and dialog that we need for these public policy issues. Having said that, I will offer that “management” is not a question – i.e. do we or don’t we. We could not choose to not “manage”. It is a question of what, when and how should and will management occur?

      • JB, Mark Gamblin, Elk, others,

        Don’t forget that Brian’s complaint was hardly about manipulation of PJ to accomplish wildlife objectives, but rather for livestock grazing, and worst, for so-called “biomass” energy which would burn it to create electricity.

        This is in a state that probably produces the least biomass per acre in America.

      • avatar Mark Gamblin (IDFG) says:

        Ralph –
        Your point is understood. That’s why I emphasized …….
        “… I am specifically referring to juniper management challenges in Idaho – not pinion pine/juniper communities in Nevada – different plant community dynamics with different management issues than we have.”

      • avatar JB says:

        Hi Ralph: I should have clarified that I was responding generally to the discussion that has followed this post, not to any one person. I guess I get frustrated that we so often let identity politics determine the tone and content of debates.

  8. avatar smalltownID says:

    Articles like these have kept me from coming back to this website very often. Please provide an objective view of the situation. Anyone with any experience or training in ecology understands the negative impacts of juniper encroachment. Please share the entire story rather than over-emphasize the points that support your dogma.

    • avatar Brian Ertz says:

      wow … really ? … without any substantiation at all ? huh … anyone with experience and training in ecology also have a pretty good idea that sometimes ideas about “good” and “bad” are divergent, depending on what the scope and focus of a particular discipline and/or subject are …

      seems to me that you’ve got a space for your point of view if you’re willing to back it up … or not – up to you …

      see – cuz on the ground we see “treatments” of juniper “encroachments” where the stumps left behind have 200 to 400 rings …

      … what does that experience and training in ecology have to say about those 400 year old “encroachments” ?

      • avatar Idaho Dave says:

        I guess it depends on what you want the landscape to look like and support….. wildlife or pinyon/junipers…
        Three states, support thinning these forests to promote forage for wildlife….
        http://www.azgfd.gov/w_c/documents/10-305SmithMesaHabitatImprovement_000.pdf

        http://www.rmef.org/NewsandMedia/NewsReleases/2010/UTprojects.htm

        http://www.outdoorchanneloutfitters.com/Blog.aspx?id=5252

      • avatar smalltownID says:

        Title: Hydrologic Vulnerability of Sagebrush Steppe Following Pinyon and Juniper Encroachment
        Author(s): Pierson FB, Williams CJ, Kormos PR, et al.
        Source: RANGELAND ECOLOGY & MANAGEMENT Volume: 63 Issue: 6 Pages: 614-629 Published: NOV 2010

        Here is the most recent “science” which I am sure is biased since it doesn’t agree with your point of view. All I asked for was a little objectivity. You could type in juniper encroachment in googlescholar and be overwhelmed. Maybe November 2010 is too outdated for you. Junipers remind me of what of what has happened with the Wisconsin pine barrens. I’m not going to waste anymore time on this if you can’t agree that there are some detrimental effects of juniper encroachment.

      • avatar Brian Ertz says:

        PJ is native. i think that’s a pretty powerful fact. probably the most important when we talk about whether PJ is desirable from an ecosystem perspective or not. of course, what’s “desirable” is what it is all about, right ?

        and to someone who values a particular attribute more than another – “restoration” may often be confused …

        PJ is native.

        what we’re seeing in Nevada is the suggestion of “encroachment”, often in areas where historical records show them to be forested by PJ but were clearcut at the turn of the century (20th) when they were largely wiped out to fuel mining in Nevada.

        other “treatments” include stands that are 200 – 400 years old – as indicated by a ring-count of stumps in the areas. a 200 – 400 year old forest of PJ is not “encroaching” on anything in a non-native way.

        one might argue that a particular stand is too dense. it’s often enlightening to look around and see if you can find any cow-pies littering the area. unpalatable/increaser plant species will always become more dense under grazing pressure than if there weren’t grazing. The same is true given understory & fire regimes altered by the activity.

        some people might like elk – and given the livestock grazing pressure that competes in places in the sage and other areas not forested, it is often easier to resent native PJ and seek to do something about them – to artificially increase the grass for which the cows compete. but to call that “restoration” is BS. soon enough the habitat will be diminished by the cows again – and more PJ “treatments” – anthropogenic manipulations of the natives – to avoid confronting the underlying problem – the non-natives.

        the same can be true for sage-grouse. a manager might be looking to increase sage-grouse habitat – and through that objective, cite studies about how PJ competes with sagebrush for land in areas. through this idea – it may be easy to say that PJ is “bad” or otherwise undersirable – but again, that begs a question of priority – normative decisions which do not describe what is a native forest or not a native forest – or density or community etc. etc. etc.

        the bottom line is that some people want elk … it’s easier to slash & burn the native PJ than it is to call the domestic competitors out.

        some people see a problem and want to recover sage-grouse … it’s easier to slash & burn the native PJ than it is to call out the other domestic competitors.

        but PJ is native … and most times when it’s “unnatural” for whatever reason are attributable to conditions that ought be dealt with themselves – rather than attacking the symptom.

        it’s only negative when you’re looking through another value for which it competes … and IMHO, when you approach a “restoration” of the wild that approaches anthropogenic problems with anthropogenic, symptomatic solutions that avoid the underlying source of the original problem, instead carving into other wild/native values , we’re probably going to disagree.

      • avatar Craig says:

        At least Mark posts on here and gives info! Shit cut the guy some slack weather you agree or not, at least he’s giving info on what’s going on! Would you rather Jon post on the subject? He seems to know everything going on out here! But yet you never say a word about his ignorant rants!

      • avatar smalltownID says:

        No need to climb to the top you can see it from the road. Not to mention I flew over it many times. Looks like they cut down about 1/4 of what would be considered old growth on Spruce but I didn’t cut any trees down, sand them, oil them, and put them under a microscope like everyone else on here so I can’t say for sure.

      • avatar smalltownID says:

        Sorry ralph, the above comment was meant to reply to you.

        Smalltown ID, I fixed it. Ralph

        Craig, it took me all of 30 seconds to find some “substantiation” on google scholar which once again, if you want to check it out you will be inundated….the reply to the substantiation was “PJ are native.” And “sage grouse biologists are conspiring with ranchers” or whatever you want to take from that.

        My only point was that when most people in natural resources, academia included, hear about P-J in the great basin the last thought on their mind is that it is threatened or in decline, rather, most people would probably wonder about the effects it is having on native wildlife like sage grouse and how encroachment influences the loss of aspen woodlands which are disappearing from the Great Basin. Mark’s attention to this post is a perfect example of how most ppl in natural resources are looking for a solution to the problem not “how do we protect it?” [However, ranchers are teaching most of the classes and natural resources is corrupt from the top down].

        The only thing I don’t like about harvesting P-J is that some corporation from china is bidding to do it apparently. Then again, I am a plant killer, so take that with a grain of salt.

        I quit working in the great basin because it was depressing in so many ways from an ecological perspective. Protecting old-growth P-J would not be on the forefront in the midst of triage. Yes, even though they are native. I want to make that clear: P-J are native. Merely pointing out the obvious to most people familiar with P-J or Juniper encroachment in the west Craig, didn’t know I was going for the jugular. I am not going to waste any more time when it is clear you do not want to be informed.

      • SmalltownID,

        Back in about 2006, Katie Fite had some photos of the cutting on Spruce Mountain close up. I recall they were big, maybe huge. I’ll try to find them.

    • smalltownID,

      I think that this article was based on an on-the-ground view of what is going on in central Nevada.

      I know folks from Western Watersheds Project have spent a great deal of time observing what actually happens compared to the publicity being put out on the projects.

      I know they (WWP) won an injunction on what was done on Spruce Mountain. Have you ever been to Spruce Mountain? (about 40 miles south of Wells?).

      Western Watersheds Project saves giant junipers on remote Nevada Mountain from chaining

      White Pine Designs: Chopping Up the West, County By County Dec. 10, 2006

      • avatar smalltownID says:

        Yes, I spent all spring and summer working out of Lage’s junction about 45 miles south of Spruce. I am quite familiar

      • SmalltownID,

        So did you climb up on the mountain and see where they had cut the old growth juniper, or if it was an earlier time notice that it was there?

      • avatar smalltownID says:

        Ralph,
        Don’t get me wrong, the clear-cut area is pretty big, Spruce is a big mountain in my mind. It does not look like much succession has taken place yet in the clear cut unfortunately. Even though I haven’t walked the clear-cut area, if grasses had taken hold it would be apparent even from the road or the air. It is still pretty barren.

        Do you know what the distribution of “old-growth” P-J in the Great Basin?

  9. avatar smalltownID says:

    Poorly written article that doesn’t represent what is really happening with Juniper and was merely used as cannon fodder imho.

  10. avatar Nancy says:

    http://www.treesforlife.org.uk/tfl.juniper.html

    A good article, along the same vein from another part of the world that encourages the growth of juniper tree colonies. Why do some humans always feel a need to tinker with ( or destroy) nature?

    • avatar Idaho Dave says:

      So you are saying we should just let things be and accept the consequences??

      Then we need to eliminate the endangered species act and just let populations die out… quit tinkering as you say..
      Results of the current environment!

  11. An area on Juniper Mountain in Owyhee County was chained way back in 1965 or so. It seems that a good look at those old chained areas would provide some on the ground proof, one way or the other, if any of these proposals are right or wrong.
    I was told by Dr.Ray J. Davis (Flora Of Idaho) that Junipers were invasive and indicated over grazing by livestock, when I took systematic botany from him at ISU way back in 1964-65. The chemicals in the shed needles inhibit the growth of other plants, which explains why there are no grasses in a Juniper understory.
    There are some very large areas of Junipers that have burned recently in central Nevada that might be observed to see if burning Juniper forests is either good or bad.
    I have never been to Missouri, but I prescribe to their state motto: “Show Me.”

  12. avatar smalltownID says:

    Unfortunately the motto works both ways Larry. 🙂

  13. Native wild life depend on the pine nuts. So, clearing pinyon for wild life improvement is not productive. As for juniper encroachment, the juniper return and the pinyon do not. Pinyon require up to 150 years to become mature seed producers. IF managers monitored the way they are mandated to by various federal laws, they would have some clue about the outcomes of the 24,000 + treatments performed in the Great Basin for fire, wildlife improvement, weed control and a half dozen other terms used for deforesting the region. They don’t even have good records of treatment, let alone long term outcomes for the last 50 years.

  14. penny frazier,

    That pinyon don’t return is very important. Pinyon pine and juniper are often considered like they are very similar. A pure sand of juniper (as in after a treatment area has regrown) is much different than a stand of pinyon and juniper.

    • Ralph,
      I was all over the southwest this summer looking for coning P.Edulis and there were miles and miles of solid juniper. I could almost tell the age of the treatment by the size of the juniper. This is one of the reasons why the biomass plants keep folding-bad science to begin with and the “mass” (meaning pinyon) is not there anywhere other than old chainings, which did kill seedlings. But, the important idea is the failure to monitor the results of these treatments . Makes “restoration” disingenuous.

      • avatar Woody says:

        Penny Frazier
        I visited your site and found it full of interesting information.

        Are there Pinus sabiniana seeds available commercially for consumption? I have collected these large, tasty nuts in northern California; P. coulteri could be another on for consideration. Their ranges are much more limited than those of pinyon pines.

  15. Pinus sabiniana are nummy – they taste roasted even w/ being raw. We just used our pine nut sheller with a seed sample batch, but the price per pound as seed is more than $50.00 lb, too rich for our blood. Lots and lots of oils in that species. Did not shell so well.
    My favorite is P. Monophylla but it is the food of the place I lived for many, many years. Thank you for look at our site.

  16. avatar PointsWest says:

    I lived in New Mexico for several years and was able to go deer and elk hunting several times. Being from Idaho, I had not really heard of pinyon trees.

    There was quite a bit in the news at that time about pinyons being cut for firewood and for cooking since the burning wood has a very nice aroma people love to have in there food and fireplace. I believe laws were passed protecting them from firewood cutting.

    I was very impressed by how many pinyon nuts some trees can produce. They fall to the ground under the tree and some large mature trees might have a gallon or two or three of pinyon nuts scattered under them. I was told that elk can survive on pinion nuts. You could easily see from elk tracks that they regularly browse at the base of these trees. You could also easily find pinyon nut shells in elk droppings.

    There were areas where I hunted that had many elk and, other than pinon nuts, there was little else in the way of browse. I got the impression pinion trees are very important elk in New Mexico and Arizona…my guess would be that without pinyon trees, there might be half as many elk. A lot of the elk habitat is pinyon forest.

  17. avatar Ron Lanner says:

    What is being lost in this discussion is that the actions proposed are on public lands using public money, planned and supervised by public employees. The National Environmental Policy Act requires such actions to have a factual scientific basis that allow them to be objectively evaluated. In the past, as Katie Fite has pointed out, numerous attempts have been made to do large-scale clearing of pinyon-juniper forest both in the Great Basin and the Southwest. I argued in my 1981 book “The Pinyon Pine; A Natural and Cultural History” (Univ. of Nevada Press, still in print) that these programs were based on faulty science and natural-resources- profession dogma. This new iteration is “supported” by supposedly new scientific ecological data, but those data are not definitive and are mis-interpreted by their authors. The stakes are much higher now because of the biomass factor. Having a forest-products market for wood can potentially lead to forest management that improves the pinyon-juniper forest, but for this to happen the prevailing dogma would first have to be discarded. And powerful interests are served by that dogma.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

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