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More Unscientific, False Claims by BLM

Source:  San Diego Free Press

Pinyon-Juniper Forests: BLM’s False Claims to Virtue
by Will Falk

The author surveying the devastation of Pinyon-Juniper deforestation (Photo: Max Wilbert)

 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.

Read the rest of this article HERE.

8 replies »

  1. More about “encroaching” junipers on Juniper Mountain

    While investigating the claim that junipers don’t belong on Juniper Mountain, I was asked to look at the original public lands surveys found on General Land Office Records site and found surveys for this landscape from 1914 and 1921. While the surveys don’t quantify junipers or show their density they do document their presence and in the General Description notes at the end of each survey the surveyors noted “thick juniper” and “scattered juniper” in every township. When doing the surveys the surveyor walked the lines between each and every section (a square mile) to mark section corners and quarters. At the end of each section line they noted the type of timber. To map this I read the notes for each and every section line and noted the documentation of juniper. I was able to give each section a score of 0 to 4. If all four section lines noted “timber: juniper” then the section was given a score of 4. What I found was that nearly every section had juniper presence just as they do today. The surveys also mention “good growth of bunch grass which affords excellent range” even though today the understory is composed of very sparse grass and a nonnative semi annual grass called Poa bulbosa that is a very poor range plant with little habitat value. Small islands of these healthy bunch grasses can be seen in areas that can’t be reached by cattle and the contrast is quite startling.


  2. I just signed a petition a few minutes ago that 40,000 people had signed to try to stop this destruction of these forests. But knowing the BLM they will ignore it even if it was 40 million signers. I never saw a government agency that is so completely out of control and needs to be shut down more than this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Deforestation is a global problem. We are rightly concerned about the current destruction of forests in other parts of the world, but it isn’t always so apparent that humans have been clearing and destroying juniper woodlands here in the West.
    Three cheers to author/researcher Will Falk.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. As a former firefighter, I can vouch for the truth that grassfires burn much faster and further than forest fires, and are often less predictable due to altering winds.

    That said, some other points come to mind. First, I find it difficult to consider Pinon/Juniper as “encroaching” since they reproduced so slowly, especially in arid regions. This summer I visited a PJ forest where I gathered Pinon nuts 40 years ago. While the canopy was denser (and sadly, there was extensive soil erosion from overuse by mountain bikes), it hardly looked different. Consider that it takes about 100 years to grow a sagebrush seed to a mature plant, and that often even small diameter trees in the west can be many hundreds or even thousands of years old, then consider how long it might take in times of drought to replace even one mature Pinon or Juniper, a single tree which might encompass, what, ten square feet at full maturity? Compared with the rampaging of invasives (including cheatgrass) across whole ecosystems, it is hard to believe destroying forests will do anything but INCREASE the speed and intensity of wildfires. George Wuerthner spoke about this at a presentation I attended, wherein he proved that the shredding, chipping, and dispersal of pine slash actually created highly flammable and widespread fuel which rather than inhibit wildfires, actually increased the risk of them starting substantially.

    We also have to consider drought and those life forms which depend on the PJ forest (and shade) for their survival. They will be destroyed or displaced, the soils crusts will be broken up, the ground temps will increase, any precipitation will run off or evaporate quickly, and desertification feedbacks continue uninterrupted, perhaps for thousands of years.

    It’s easy to just drive in the ‘dozers and start tearing the world apart, but the problems are more complex and won’t become less so by such practices. We should begin with earnestly trying to eradicate cheatgrass and attempt to restore native bunch grasses when and where possible. At a minimum, since cheatgrass introduction is squarely our fault, we should focus on cleaning up this mess, not tearing down entire (and very slow growing) native vegetation, especially in arid and semi arid areas.

    Something we all need to ask ourselves in this regard is why we allow people to build and live in fire-prone areas to start with? If people choose to live there, they should accept the risks. Expecting our government to decertify whole landscapes to “protect” housing and infrastructure is not only unreasonable, it eventually leads to uninhabitable regions anyway, so what’s the point? Fires are natural processes necessary for healthy ecosystems, and seem to have been so for millennia.

    Maybe we should be investigating ways to build fire-proof habitations, even underground, which can realistically coexist in the ecosystems people choose to live in, rather than destroy the whole ecology that people find compelling in the first place.

    Liked by 2 people

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