Natural History of the Pinyon Juniper Forest

History of Forest Destruction

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Natural History of Pinyon-Juniper Forest

– Ecology –

Rough extent of Pinyon Juniper forest (Evans 1988)

Pinyon Pine and Juniper trees live together in forests that occur from Idaho in the north to Mexico in the south, and from eastern California in the west to Colorado in the east. These forests cover some 55 million acres in the United States.

Juniper trees are often known as “cedars” in the southwestern U.S.

These forests include several species of both Pinyon Pine and Juniper. However, all share the same general characteristics. Both Pinyon Pine and Juniper are relatively small trees, rarely over 50 feet high, and often shrubby in appearance.

Pinyon Pine species
|  Juniper Species
 – Single-leaf |  – Western
 – Colorado |  – Rocky Mountain
 – Parry |  – Utah
 – Potosi |
 – Johann’s |
 – Orizaba |
 – Mexican |
Pinyon Pine tree
Pinyon Pine tree


Juniper tends to be twisted and gnarled, and can reach great age. Trees over 1000 years old have been recorded, and no one knows exactly how old they can get. Pinyon Pines tend to be more upright and regal in their bearing. The oldest recorded Pinyon Pine in northern Utah was 973 years old.

Utah Juniper tree
Utah Juniper tree

Pinyon-Juniper forests host incredible biodiversity. More than 450 vascular plants and over 150 vertebrate animals call these regions home—including Rocky Mountain elk, Black bears, cougars, Mule deer, Desert bighorn sheep, Pinyon mice, Abert’s squirrels, and humans.

Some species have developed relationships that make them entirely dependent on Pinyon Pine and Juniper trees. Two species of birds, Pinyon Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers, are almost wholly dependent on pine nuts. They also plant hundreds of trees each year when they cache nuts underground. Several lepidoptera species (moths and butterflies) depend on Juniper trees to feed their larvae.

According to Will Falk, “The trees also yield plentiful berries and house a high insect diversity for birds to eat. Mammals also eat the berries while seeking shelter in hollow juniper trunks, taking advantage of the trees’ shade in hot temperatures and the trees’ thermal cover in cold temperatures.  Pinyon pines offer similar benefits to forest-dwellers.”

– Medicine and Food –

Pinyon Pine nuts have been an important food source for people for thousands of years. A pound of Pine Nuts contains about 3,000 calories and is dense with vitamins, minerals, protein, and healthy fats. Pine nuts continue to be highly valued around the world, and local people, especially indigenous people, still gather or “pick” pine nuts every fall.

Juniper has long been an important species for medicinal and ceremonial use. The wood was also historically used to make bows. Some “culturally modified trees” from which bow staves were taken while leaving the tree alive remain in Nevada and other locations. These trees are threatened by the destruction of forests in the region. It is likely that some have already been destroyed.

– Indigenous People –

Indigenous nations of this region have had relations with Pine Nut and Cedar trees for countless generations. Pinyon pines have long been central to many cultures here. Some call pine nuts “the buffalo of the Great Basin.”

These nations include:

Agaiduka (Lemhi Shoshone) Newe (Western Shoshone)
Aha Macav (Mohave) Nishinam
Akimel O’Odham (Pima) Numa (Paiute)
Chiso Nunt’zi (Ute)
Comcáac (Sari) Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute)
Dami (Southern Tepéhuan) Opata nations: Tehuima, Eudeve, Jova
Diné (Navajo) Piipaash (Maricopa)
Guaymas Pit River Achomawi and Atsugewi
Halchidhoma Pohogue (Shoshone)
Halykwamai Quechan
Hinonoeino (Arapaho) Rarámuri (Tarahumara)
Hopi Sobaipuri
Kohogue (Green River Shoshone) Suma
Kohuana Tapaxcolmeh (Concho)
Kutsipiuti (Goshute) The Pueblo Nations: Ohkay Owingeh, Tua-Tua, Pi’wwel, Nambe, Posuwaugeh, Testuge, P’e’aku’, Nafiat, Tue-i, Piro, Tamaiya, Katstya, Kewa, Pohwoge, Kotyit, Khapo, Walatowa, Tsi’ya, Kawaik, Haaku, and A:shiwi
Kwapa (Cocopah) Timbisha
Kwevkepaya Timbisha (Shoshone)
La Junta Toboso
Macurawe Tohono O’Odham
Maidu Tolkepaya
Maklaks Waashiw
Moadok Maklaks (Klamath) Xumani (Jumano)
Monache Yavapé (Yavapai)
Ndeh (Apache) Yoeme (Taqui)


[This list was made using information from local contacts and Tribal Nations Maps. Some of these nations were wiped out as a result of colonization. Information is difficult to come by about them and many others. Please contact us with corrections, additions, or other information. Thank you and we apologize for any errors.]

The First Wave of Forest Destruction: Mining, 1859—1945

Charcoal ovens c. 1879 in Nevada
Charcoal ovens c. 1879 in Nevada. From Zeier 1987.

The Great Basin’s mining boom began when European settlers discovered silver in the Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nevada. Over the next twenty years, dozens of major mines were dug throughout Nevada with some of the most destructive mines located in Virginia City, Austin, Unionville, Ely, and Eureka.

Mining spelled disaster for Pinyon-Juniper forests. As Ronald Lanner explains in his foundational work “The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History”: “Lumber in enormous quantities was needed for these operations [mining]: timbers for shoring the mine shafts, charcoal for smelting ore, cordwood for heating and cooking. The great Nevada silver boom ran on wood.” And, the wood most readily available for these mines came from pinyon pines and junipers.

belchermineDescriptions of the pace of the destruction after mining began are dizzying. Lanner cites accounts of the deforestation around Virginia City writing, “When mining began in 1859, the mountains for miles around were covered with pinyon and juniper. These local forests were rapidly depleted. By 1868…the supply of local wood was entirely exhausted and cordwood was being brought from Dayton, twelve miles distant.”

By the 1870s, silver miners had to use a process called “smelting” to access silver from rocks and minerals. To smelt an ore is to melt it down to extract the silver from the melted liquid. Smelting required furnaces that could generate huge amounts of heat and that heat was provided by charcoal produced from pinyon pines and junipers.

Historic charcoal ovens near Ely
Historic charcoal ovens near Ely, NV.

The impact of these smelting operations was staggering. Lanner explains, “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 of trees 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, every acre having been picked clean…”

However, by the late 1800’s, charcoal made from wood was overtaken by petcoke (a derivative of coal) as the preferred fuel for smelting ore. Clearcutting of Pinyon Pine and Juniper forests continued, but on a smaller scale. To this day, mining is a major industry across Nevada. A new threat, however, was on the rise.

The Second Wave: Cattle, 1945—1990

Ranchers possess a tremendous amount of power in Great Basin politics. With most native grasses wiped out by over-grazing before World War II, they looked to land occupied by forests to feed their herds. Cattle do not eat pinyon pines and junipers, and so the forests were not profitable rangelands. Thus, ranching interest led to the second major wave of pinyon-juniper deforestation.

chainIn order to quickly clear vast tracts of forest for grazing, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service developed a technique called chaining. Chaining is done by stretching a heavy anchor chain (a single link may weigh 100 pounds) taken from a US Navy battleship between two crawler tractors. The tractors drive parallel across the forest floor ripping up everything in their path. After the trees are uprooted, the cleared land is seeded with forage plants, usually crested wheat chain2grass, which is a non-native, highly-flammable grass from central Asia. While the war against the forests is made most clear, perhaps, by the battleship anchor chain used in chaining, pinyon-juniper forests were also burned, sprayed with herbicides, and crushed with machines that converted living trees into mulch.

Just like the destruction caused by mining, the sheer amount of deforestation inspired by ranching interests is sickening. Lanner estimates that between 1950 and 1964 three million acres of woodland were converted to pasture. And, between 1960 and 1972, over a third of a million acres were chained by the Forest Service and BLM in Utah and Nevada alone.

This has continued to the present day. It also isn’t restricted to Pinyon Pines and Junipers. Traditionally, ranchers have tried to clear as much sagebrush from their land as possible

The Third Wave: Destruction as “Restoration,” 1990—present

As many of the Great Basin’s Indigenous Peoples and concerned environmentalists raised awareness about the devastation ranching and deforestation visits upon local communities, a new set of justifications for pinyon-juniper destruction was needed. Recognizing the building momentum of the environmental movement over recent years, the ranching industry and others who profit from the deforestation have turned to justifying the destruction with false claims that their “vegetation treatment projects” “maintain sagebrush habitat, riparian plant communities, wet meadows and springs” and “protect and enhance historic juniper woodland habitat.”

BLM and Forest Service dogma insists that pinyon-juniper forests are “encroaching” into lands (including sagebrush habitat) that they did not previously live on. They also accuse pinyon pines and junipers of somehow using too much water and they hypothesize that cutting these trees will lead to increased water yield. Both of these arguments have been soundly defeated in scientific literature.

Pinyon-juniper forests are not encroaching, they are actually recovering from close to 150 years of being clear-cut for mining and ranching interests. What we see today in many cases is pinyon-juniper simply reclaiming places where they were once dominant.

It is also insane to think that a process like chaining can improve any living being’s habitat. Mechanical treatments are extremely destructive to biological crusts and these treatments lead to the greatest degree of soil disturbance. Soil losses due to erosion following activities like chaining can take 5,000 to 10,000 years to reform in in the fragile Great Basin.

Hot Button Issues

– Sage-Grouse –

The Greater Sage-grouse is a large, ground-dwelling bird that lives (as the same implies) in sagebrush country in the western U.S. and parts of Canada. Between 1988 and 2012, their population is estimated to have collapsed by 98%.

This is on top of previous collapses. Their population is estimated to have been about 16 million in the 1910’s, and has been declining ever since.

Sage-grouse prefer to live and breed in dense, healthy stands of sagebrush with abundant native bunchgrass. The primary cause of declining Sage-grouse numbers is habitat degradation and destruction.

Most everyone—agencies, environmentalists, public advocates—agrees to this point. However, at this point, opinions start to vary.

The official positions of the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture are that this declining health is mainly caused by invasive grasses (such as cheatgrass), high rates of wildfires as a result of historical fire suppression, and the spread of Pinyon Pine and Juniper trees into what has been, over the past 100 years or so, open sagebrush country.

Many field biologists, native people, and grassroots environmentalists disagree.

The major cause of habitat degradation in the West is cattle grazing.

George Wuerthner have taken to calling this “the Bovine Curtain.” He writes: “Like the so-called Iron Curtain that used to filter information critical of Communism in the old Soviet Block countries, the Bovine Curtain limits what we hear about the detrimental effects of livestock.”


– Forest Expansion (or “Invasion”) –

– Cattle Grazing –

– Fire –

– Carbon Storage / Global Warming –

From ecologist George Wuerthner:

“Increasingly, it is evident that our forests are more important for their role in carbon storage than as lumber, and are harmed by forest thinning projects. Indeed, even if the forests burn, they store more carbon in a variety of ways than if the forest is thinned. (Charcoal in the soil from forest fires is a major source for long-term carbon storage). Yet the value of carbon storage is typically ignored in any discussion about thinning/logging (See Carbon storage–BLM economic report).

Logging/thinning removes the carbon in the form of trees, as well as disturbing forest soils which also releases more carbon. Logging/thinning reduces carbon more than any fire (because you still have lots of snags and down logs after a fire, plus roots, and charcoal–all of which store carbon).

Of course, there are other issues as well, such as the relative ineffectiveness of thinning to reduce and control large fires under extreme fire weather and the low probability that any fire will actually encounter a thinning project. And some recent studies suggesting that active forest management actually increases high severity fires (see Bradley paper) and that many forest types have long rotations between fires (see Baker paper) and you have a compelling argument against thinning vs protecting forest for their carbon storage values. Put all this together, and thinning forests… is a waste of money and reduces a… carbon storage.”

Science supports forest protection

Common arguments in favor of destroying Pinyon-Juniper forests are biased and based on flawed research. See this document for a comprehensive refutation of arguments in favor of forest destruction.

Indigenous peoples depend on Pinyon-Juniper forests

The destruction of Pinyon-Juniper forests has severe negative impacts on indigenous people in the region, both historical and contemporary. Sacred sites are threatened by these projects.

The forests deserve to live

When can we say that destroying forests is simply wrong?