By Will Falk
Once I recovered from the shock I experienced witnessing the carnage produced by a Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) so-called “pinyon-juniper treatment project” just south of Spruce Mountain in Nevada, all I wanted was the destruction to stop. In order to stop the destruction, we have to ask the question: “Why are they doing this?”
BLM’s justifications [are] moving targets … Once a justification is proved to be based on bad science and incomplete research, BLM throws up a new target.
To learn the answer, I embarked on a long, strange trip through BLM documents, books on pinyon pine trees, You-Tube propaganda, and countless scientific articles. I found so many justifications, my head was spinning. On a phone call with staff from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Field Attorney Neal Clark described BLM’s justifications as “moving targets.” Once a justification is proved to be based on bad science and incomplete research, BLM throws up a new target. Meanwhile, the destruction of pinyon-juniper forests intensifies.
The BLM, Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office is proposing a vegetation treatment project in the Virginia Mountains area north of Reno and west of Pyramid Lake in Washoe County, Nevada. The Virginia Mountains Vegetation Treatment Project would destroy “approximately 30,387 acres” of pinyon-juniper forest.
The BLM’s online notice lists some of the most common excuses used for pinyon-juniper deforestation. Those excuses include: to “reduce the potential of large-scale high severity wild land fire,” “provide for public and firefighter safety and protection of property and infrastructure,” “maintain sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs,” and “protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat.” In order to achieve these goals, the BLM’s online notice says the “proposed treatments include mechanical mastication, mechanical removal, hand cutting, chemical treatments, chaining, and seeding.”
BLM’s claims in their campaign against pinyon-juniper forests directly contradict the body of scientific literature.
Of course, the notice ends with the currently fashionable nod to protecting greater sage-grouse habitat and reads, “treatments would be designed to address threats to greater sage-grouse from invasive annual grasses, wildfires, and conifer expansion.”
When BLM claims that their proposed pinyon-juniper treatment projects will achieve the results like the ones listed in the Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office’s notice, they are making claims that are not supported by scientific research. In fact, many of BLM’s claims in their campaign against pinyon-juniper forests directly contradict the body of scientific literature.
Since I began researching pinyon-juniper forests, writing this Pinyon-Juniper Forest series, and participating in a grass-roots campaign to demand a nationwide moratorium on pinyon-juniper deforestation, I have heard BLM’s claims replicated many times. It is time their erroneous assertions are put to rest. In this essay, I will address the common justifications BLM uses for destroying pinyon-juniper forests and show how BLM is lying.
The first reason BLM’s Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office uses to support its proposal to clear-cut 30,387 acres of living forest is typical in the nationwide assault on pinyon-juniper forests. BLM claims their proposed project will “reduce the potential of large-scale high severity wild land fire.” According to BLM, this will “provide for public and firefighter safety and protection of property and infrastructure.”
BLM’s justification suggests that there is a serious potential for high severity, wild land fire in pinyon-juniper forests, but is that true?
William L. Baker and Douglas Shinneman wrote an article “Fire and Restoration of Piñon-Juniper Woodlands in the Western United States: A Review” (PDF) which is considered one of the leading reviews of fire incidence in pinyon-juniper forests. Baker and Shinneman argue that there simply is not enough scientific evidence for land managers to apply uniform fire and structural treatments like BLM’s proposed Virginia Mountains Treatment Project in pinyon-juniper forests.
[The BLM’s proposed] treatments have actually been found to increase pinyon-juniper forests’ potential for burning.
Not only are scientists cautioning BLM not to assume pinyon-juniper forests have a serious risk of large scale fire, mechanical treatments have actually been found to increase pinyon-juniper forests’ potential for burning. Allison Jones, Jim Catlin, and Emanuel Vazquez, working for the Wild Utah Project, wrote an essay titled “Mechanical Treatment of Piñon-Juniper and Sagebrush Systems in the Intermountain West: A Review of the Literature” (PDF). Their essay is a comprehensive review of the scientific literature surrounding pinyon-juniper forests and their review undermines many of the goals often given as the reasons for prescribed mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests.
In regards to using pinyon-juniper mechanical treatment as a tool for reducing the potential of wild land fire, Jones et al. write, “There are… many studies that report when piñon-juniper is mechanically treated and if cheatgrass and/or other exotic annuals are present in the system before treatment, then cover of these species will increase post-treatment.” Cheatgrass, of course, is an invasive species that quickly outcompetes native grasses. The relevant problem with cheatgrass is that it is more flammable. When cheatgrass dominates rangelands, it speeds up the natural fire interval of those rangelands. In other words, cheatgrass makes the land it occupies more prone to wild fires.
Regardless of what BLM says, what they are actually doing is contributing to global climate change, a longer wildfire season at home, and hastening the destruction of the entire planet.
When BLM rips up pinyon-juniper forests in the interests of reducing the potential for wildfires, their destruction produces the opposite of their stated goal. Instead of providing for public and firefighter safety, BLM is actually making it easier for cheatgrass to choke out native species which in turn makes it more likely the Great Basin will burn. On the global scale, we know that deforestation speeds climate change. Trees sequester carbon and the prevalence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a leading cause of climate change. Warming climates lead to longer and more intense wildfire seasons. Wildfires burn forests releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and the vicious cycle intensifies. Regardless of what BLM says, what they are actually doing is contributing to global climate change, a longer wildfire season at home, and hastening the destruction of the entire planet. “Public and firefighter safety”? Hardly.
The next justification BLM’s Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office lists for why it must destroy pinyon-juniper forests is to “maintain sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs.” Before I address this justification, remember that BLM plans to maintain different plant habitats through processes like chaining tens of thousands of acres of living forest. Chaining, you may recall, involves stretching an anchor chain from a US Navy battleship between two trawler tractors and dragging the chain across the forest floor ripping up everything the tractors’ path. Chaining, BLM claims, improves sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs.
The are two mistaken beliefs underlying BLM’s stated goal to maintain sage brush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows, and springs. The first idea is rooted in BLM dogma that insists that pinyon-juniper forests are “encroaching” into lands (including sagebrush habitat) they did not previously occupy. The second idea accuses pinyon pine and juniper trees of somehow using too much water and hypothesizes that cutting these trees will lead to increased water yield. Both of these arguments have been soundly defeated in scientific literature.
The pinyon-juniper encroachment theory is a product of settler colonialism’s historical amnesia. One of the products of the white supremacy brought to the Great Basin by European settlers is a selective memory that ignores guilt-inducing facts of ecological destruction wrought on the Great Basin by European mining activities.
When BLM claims pinyon-juniper forests are encroaching, the forests are actually recovering from the shock of European development.
Pinyon pine expert Ronald Lanner described the catastrophic destruction of pinyon-juniper forests in Nevada in his book “The Piñon-Pine: A Natural and Cultural History.” Lanner explains how pinyon and juniper wood was essential for fuel for smelting operations, lumber for buildings in boom towns, and as mine supports in mine-shaft construction. Lanner says western Nevada’s Comstock mines used 18 million board feet of pinyon-juniper timber annually while Eureka, Nevada burned 17,850 bushels of pinyon-juniper charcoal daily. Lanner explains that by 1870 – a mere 11 years after the European discovery of silver in Nevada – charcoal makers had denuded forests for a 50 miles around Eureka, NV.
When BLM claims pinyon-juniper forests are encroaching, the forests are actually recovering from the shock of European development. It wasn’t just mining, either. Lanner estimates that 3 million acres of pinyon-juniper forests were destroyed to make room for cattle between 1960 and 1972 in the Great Basin and Intermountain West. Jones et al. explain that “what we see today in many cases is piñon-juniper simply recolonizing places where they were dominant but then gained in the 1940s to 1970s.” They go on to state, “what is actually natural recolonization is often mistaken for encroachment.”
A classic accusation hurled at juniper trees in particular is that they consume more water through their roots compared to other plants where junipers live. Jones et al. cite 8 recent studies to state that this simply is not the case. Jones et. al also demonstrate that mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests do not produce the effects BLM wants the treatments to: “There are many indications from the literature that mechanical piñon-juniper…treatment, especially if followed by mechanical drill seeding, can fail to meet the goals of ‘ecological restoration and watershed health and productivity.” The seedings enable grazing by large herds of cattle that also disturb the soil crusts and cause flammable cheatgrass to proliferate.
Why do these mechanical treatment projects fail to promote restoration? They fail to promote restoration because, as Jones et al. explain, mechanical treatments are extremely destructive to biological crusts. Additionally, Jones et al. point out how mechanical treatments like chaining lead to the greatest degree of soil disturbance. And, soil losses due to erosion following destructive activities like chaining can take 5,000 to 10,000 years to reform.
Next, we have BLM’s claim that their Virginia Mountains Vegetation Treatment Project will “protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat.” Again, even without the science, it is difficult to understand how dragging a giant chain across a forest floor to rip up pinyon pine and juniper trees by their roots can protect and enhance the very juniper trees being destroyed. As you might expect, the science reveals the lunacy in BLM’s stated goal.
In addition to the way mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests destroy a natural community’s biologic crust and lead to practically irreversible soil loss, Jones et al, describe how mechanical drill seeding or mechanical clearing of dead pinyon-juniper trees after a fire “can lead to significantly increased wind erosion…” They also state that, “there are many examples in the literature of cases where mechanical clearing of piñon-juniper has led to increases in erosion by both air and water.” And finally, they remind us that “any kind of land treatment that clears the existing vegetation and disturbs the soil (so all mechanical treatments but also fire and chemical treatments) can result in increases in exotic annuals, especially cheat grass, when these species are present in the system before treatment.”
It is quite clear, then, treatment projects like the proposed Virginia Mountains Vegetation Treatment Project do not protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat. These projects destroy historic juniper woodland habitat and seriously degrade the ecosystems they are found in.
Protecting greater sage-grouse habitat has become the newest justification for pinyon-juniper deforestation and BLM explains that the Virginia Mountains Treatment Project “would be designed to address threats to greater sage-grouse from invasive annual grasses, wildfires, and conifer expansion.”
These lists of threats to greater sage-grouse suggest that if BLM was truly interested in protecting the birds, they would spend their energy combating oil and gas development, conversion of land for agricultural use, and climate change.
First, we should double-check precisely what are the threats to greater sage-grouse. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, takes a slightly different perspective than BLM saying, “Unfortunately, because of oil and gas development, conversion of land for agricultural use, climate change and human development, sage grouse only inhabit half their historic range”. A similar website run by Defenders of Wildlife echoes WWF, “Remaining sagebrush habitat is fragmented and degraded by oil and gas drilling, livestock grazing, mining, unnatural fire, invasive weeds, off-road vehicles, roads, fences, pipelines and utility corridors.”
These lists of threats to greater sage-grouse suggest that if BLM was truly interested in protecting the birds, they would spend their energy combating oil and gas development, conversion of land for agricultural use, and climate change. I will play BLM’s game, though, to discover if mechanical treatments really will produce the results BLM thinks they will.
They will not, of course. Jones et al. made it clear that mechanical treatments of pinyon-juniper forests pave the way for invasive annual grasses to dominate treated areas. Invasive annual grasses choke the ground surface with continuous fuel, and burn more easily than clumped native bunchgrasses. And, as I wrote earlier, “mechanical treatments” are codespeak for deforestation. Deforestation leads to accelerated climate change which leads to more wildfires which kill greater sage-grouse.
I have already cited Lanner and Jones et al. (who cite many, many more) to explain that “conifer expansion” in most places is not really happening. This time, I want to address this argument from a psychological level. Notice how BLM is blaming conifer expansion for greater sage-grouse habitat loss while many other organizations are blaming oil and gas development, agricultural conversion, and mining. These other organizations, in other words, are blaming human expansion for greater sage-grouse habitat loss. When BLM’s rhetoric is viewed in this way, it becomes possible to analyze BLM’s words as a psychological distraction away from the role of humans in the destruction of the Great Basin. It is easier to blame trees than it is to blame humans for the deterioration of the Great Basin. Maybe this explains why so many readily accept BLM’s bogus arguments?
Learning that BLM is mistaken or spreading downright lies about what they’re doing to pinyon-juniper forests, the question, again, becomes, “Why?”
Why are they lying? How have they convinced themselves this is acceptable? Are they so beholden to ranching interests that their rationality has been destroyed by cattle money? Do they truly think they are doing what is best for the lands they “manage?” Or, with the amount of destruction they are wreaking on the Great Basin, do they hate pinyon-juniper forests?
I think there must be good-hearted people working for BLM who truly do care for the Great Basin. I wonder how they could have been misled in this way. I recall an article I recently read by Robert Jay Lifton, the brilliant psychologist who asked these very same questions of those involved in the rise of Nazism in his book “The Nazi Doctors.” Lifton’s article appeared in the New York Times and was called “The Climate Swerve” about the world’s deepening awareness of climate change.
Whether [the BLM staff] believe their false claims to virtue or not, is irrelevant for the thousands of acres of beautiful, ancient pinyon-juniper forests set to be destroyed by BLM. What matters is that we stop them.
In the article, Lifton explains, “Over the course of my work I have come to the realization that it is very difficult to endanger or kill large numbers of people except with a claim to virtue.” I would extend his realization to the natural world and explain that BLM’s justifications stand as their claims to virtue clearing their conscience before they murder millions of trees and the beings who live in them. The only way BLM can cut 30,387 acres of pinyon-juniper forests is to claim they are “protecting the public and firefighters” or “enhancing historic juniper woodland habitat” or addressing “threats to greater sage-grouse” so they do not have to face the truth of their violence.
Whether they believe their false claims to virtue or not, is irrelevant for the thousands of acres of beautiful, ancient pinyon-juniper forests set to be destroyed by BLM. What matters is that we stop them.
Will Falk says
Thanks for always making these articles look so beautiful, SDFP editors!
louise hoff says
Thanks for looking into this. My family camped out on BLM lands years ago and throught it was then run by engineers building dams and roads, overseeing cattle grazing, and clearing aquifers for growers. Who runs BLM? any biologists? botanists? Has the NRDC or Sierra Club looked into this? How I love our beautiful open landscapes!
jack urquhart says
in your first paragraph you state:
“I wanted was the destruction to stop. In order to stop the destruction, we have to ask the question: “Why are they doing this?”
You know how some questions only have one answer? simple, clean answers like ‘love’ or ‘Faith’ or ‘Death’ ?
Questions like yours only have one answer as well. Do you know intuitively what it is?
No matter what costume it wears, no matter what form it has, no matter how many separate bricks build the monastery, each brick has the same name.
Money. Also known in some districts as Power, but they are the same. I don’t even have to read further.
Those who want these things (thing) are almost impossible to stop. We are tiny sticks pounding on the toenail of the dragon. Hope you win.
gary cook says
What a shame. How can the BLM be stopped?
Will Falk says
We’re in the early stages of forming a coalition of groups throughout the Intermountain West including WildLands Defense, Deep Green Resistance, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Our goal is to make pinyon-juniper deforestation unthinkable. In the meantime, we’re organizing to pressure BLM into a nationwide moratorium on PJ “treatment projects.”
We’re working on creating a website, but you can follow our news at Protect Pinon-Juniper Forests on facebook.
Here’s a video we’ve put together, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQZ5Udkt_qc&feature=youtu.be
Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is on the notification list for BLM’s current project to deforest thousands of acres in the Hamblin Valley. They failed to comment, and the bulldozers are rolling.
Neal Clark, SUWA says
SUWA submitted multiple comments on the Hamlin Valley Resource Protection and Habitat Improvement Project (DOI-BLM-UT-C010-2010-0022-EA), which was ultimately approved by the BLM’s Cedar City Field Office in June 2014.
We repeatedly argued (both in written comments and during field tours with BLM) that BLM’s environmental assessement (EA) for the project was programmatic in nature and was not legally sufficient to authorize site-speciic surface disturbing activity (i.e., mastication, dixie harrow, lop and scatter). As a result of this argument, BLM ultimately issued a “programmatic EA” for the Hamlin Valley project and committed to site-specific environmental analyses prior to conducting any surface disturbing activity. The final EA clearly states that it would “be used to provide programmatic guidance to managers . . . [and that] site specific actions would be subject to additional NEPA review.” Hamlin Valley EA, p. 25.
BLM has yet to issue any subsequent NEPA analysis that authorizes surface disturbing activites. The mastication and lop and scatter treatments that occurred in Hamlin Valley in 2015 were not done in compliance with BLM’s legal obligation under NEPA and SUWA is taking appropriate follow-up action to ensure that the BLM is held to the committments it made in approving the Hamlin Valley project.
katie fite says
The BLM just threw more money into the tree killing pot today. It comes from sale of BLM land near Las Vegas to facilitate urban sprawl.
Ronald Lanner says
Don’t expect the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society or any other of the establishment environmentals to give a damn. These pinyon-juniper forests are not warm and fuzzy, and will not bring in big donations from East Coast do-gooders to whom charisma matters.
Jo Smith says
I did just find this article on the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance site. There are many pinyon-juniper forests in Utah (where I live) and it seems that SUWA works hard to protect all of these beautiful places. I also think more should be made of the “warm and fuzzy” animals that live (and consequently die) in these forests — not that it would bring in any big donations, however.
Mike LeFevre says
I have to disagree with some of the statements in the essay. Having been burned out by a large uncontrollable juniper wildfire in August of 2013, I can testify to the speed and intensity of these types of fires. The fire scar was reseeded by helicopter in the months after the fire and the next spring there was a proliferation of grasses and forbs that could not compete with a mature juniper. There was some regrowth of cheat grass, but it was usually near roadways, water runoff channels and disturbed areas from firefighting efforts. The second year, native wildflowers, grasses, brush took over the bare hillsides. this was after a very dry winter. I agree with the destruction that chaining causes, having witnessed several large areas ripped to shreds by the process. In my area, it has proven to be the least effective in controlling regrowth of seedlings of the junipers. An adjacent area was cleared 5 years ago by the “mulching” of the standing trees with “masticators?” mounted on tracked machinery leaving minimal soil disturbance but opening up the ground to the sunlight and available water producing a luscious mixed grass/brush habitat. Mammals and raptors have flourished in the subsequent ecosystem change. I do agree that annual grasses are the bane of the modern West, choking out natives and creating dangerous firescapes. I believe that proper range management could virtually eliminate them from the land. The author mentions that these “ancient forests”should be left alone but I would challenge that statement and would like to see data that supports it. Even in the body of his essay he admits that most of the modern juniper/pinyon forests are regrowth from pioneer de-forestation. That era is just 150+ years back. Hardly “ancient”. I have been in, what I would consider, old-growth juniper forests that just don’t have the trunk diameter to be “ancient” even considering the arid landscape they were growing in. With their penchant to burn, a range fire in pre-columbian times would burn until it ran out of fuel, and if indigenous peoples set the fire intentionally, as Plains tribes were purported to do, juniper forests would have a hard time growing from ancient times. I applaud Mr. Faulk’s efforts to bring this issue to the forefront as it is a subject that needs real data and public sunshine/discussion that would help the contention in other western issues such as the wild horse problem/issue.
Will Falk says
Mr. LeFevre, unfortunately many of your claims are not supported by the research and simply echo arguments I already undermined in my essay with reference to the body of scientific literature on the topic. I’d like to respond to a few of them.
“Having been burned out by a large uncontrollable juniper wildfire in August of 2013…”
I am sorry this happened to you, but blaming juniper trees is dishonest. The truth is deforestation and human-produced climate change are more culpable for wildfires than juniper trees. If you were really concerned about the intensity of wildfires in the west, you would recognize that forests are one of our strongest allies in slowing climate change and softening the intensity of these fires. Additionally, and I already addressed this argument in my essay, scientists generally agree that pinyon-juniper treatment projects are simply not very effective as so-called “fuels management.”
Again, I am sorry for your losses due to wildfire, but the answer should not involve destroying the homes of countless others with lives as valuable to them as yours is to you. It is easier to blame trees than it is to blame humans, but trees are not where the blame properly falls.
Next, you recount the way grasses and forbs proliferated after juniper destruction. In Jones, Catlin, and Vazquez’ literature review, however, many scientists found that the destruction cleared the way for cheat grass domination. Cheat grass makes the land more flammable. I’m sure you are recounting your experience honestly, but to hold up your specific experience in one place against the work of countless researchers across the West is, again, dishonest. It’s like saying because there’s more snow in Park City this year than the last 5 years, climate change must not be happening.
You wrote: “I do agree that annual grasses are the bane of the modern West, choking out natives and creating dangerous firescapes. I believe that proper range management could virtually eliminate them from the land.” Who is going to administer this proper range management? BLM? BLM is firmly in the pocket of ranching and mining industries. Ranching and BLM policies brought these annual grasses to the West in the first place. Of course, this is the same BLM that has, as I’ve demonstrated, carried on a decades-old campaign against PJ forest that has been a disaster for life in the region. No, what we need to do is get out of the way, clear the cattle from the land, stop mining, and let her heal herself.
After that, you challenge my description of the forests as ancient. When people characterize PJ regrowth as expansion they are ignoring how much of the forests were destroyed by settlers for mining and ranching. Pinyon-juniper forests have been essential members of the Great Basin community for a very long time. Ronald Lanner says pinyon pines occupied the Great Basin 20 million years ago, when did settlers get here again? Finally, it’s common knowledge that juniper trees 2-300 years old can be found across the Great Basin.
Chris Hass says
Very good article. The USFS is doing something similar with Ponderosa Pine forests in many areas of the west, ignoring the historic (and pre-historic) patchiness of natural habitats and the importance of cover for wildlife.
Maggie Frazier says
I believe I already commented regarding this on one of the sites that I follow. It really sounds like just more of the same abuse that the BLM is heaping upon our public wild lands and wild animals. I have followed the BLM’s push to rid the public land of wild horses & burros – the cruelty and abuse perpetuated upon these WILD animals – is done for the same reason as removing these forests! Money & Greed. This agency has been allowed to do as they please – like a group of spoiled teenagers – all for the sake of the livestock industry (thats what it is) and the mining-gas & oil industries. I agree with your take on this – this article was in one of the horse blogs I follow. Keep up the good work – and PUBLICIZE it!
Jan Schultz says
How very satisfying it is to see your stand is against the destruction of our natural world and the beings in it. Thank you! We fight this same fight against BLM’s drivel of virtue to rid the public lands of wild horses and burros, in favor of intense grazing, oil, gas and mining leases.
You are so right – end grazing, extractive leases and let the land and the beings on it revive.
I’ve also seen landscapes completely ruined by chaining and mechanical eradication. Thank you for a job very well done.
This is not at all a thorough review of the literature. You claim that the science is overwhelmingly in opposition of the BLM’s plans, but you only link to one peer-reviewed paper, and it is by an author who is controversial at best in restoration forestry circles (Baker). Its too easy to mislead people who don’t have access to more information.
I agree that some restoration techniques can be a bit heavy-handed (i.e. chaining). There should certainly be an effort made to develop better techniques. But that doesn’t mean that woody plant encroachment isn’t a conservation issue or that humans shouldn’t have a role in restoring historic community structure and disturbance regimes.
In all, this piece reads like a one-sided political/opinion piece that is meant to incite outrage. Yet that outrage may very well be mis-directed, and its irresponsible to only present a small minority of the research that is currently available.
BTW, I’m very opposed to grazing domesticated animals on public land and am in no way in support of the ranching industry.