Eaten a fashionable salad sprinkled with pine nuts lately?
They’re awfully tasty.
Pine nuts are also susceptible to commercial over-harvesting which, when combined with the impacts of the climate crisis, are becoming more scarce, and threatening cultural traditions of Nevada’s indigenous peoples.
Ryan Boone is an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, but he grew up in Las Vegas, about 300 miles away from the tribe’s reservation.
Last year Boone skipped days of classes at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to drive to the reservation and participate in his tribe’s annual pine nut festival.
“I always tell people it’s that it’s so much different to walk on dirt and grass rather than asphalt and concrete,” said Boone, a 20-year old computational physics major and the president of the UNLV Native American Student Association.
Tribal members from various nations across the country come together at what they call a blessed event where indigenous people gather pinyon pine nuts and celebrate the harvest with pow wows and talent shows.
Every September Boone’s family travels from Ohio and elsewhere to gather for the festival.
It’s something of a family reunion and spiritual return to his culture, Boone said.
He’s never tasted pine nuts that have not come from his reservation, said Boone. But he fears that an increase in commercial harvesting for pine nuts combined with the climate crisis will someday force him to buy them from a store.
“This country has done so much devastation to our people,” Boone said. “When we lose these pine nuts we lose a part of our culture. It always comes down to money and profit.”
Consumption – and commercial harvesting – rising fast
Pinyon pines are especially sensitive to heat and drought — and Nevada is experiencing more of both in recent years and pinyon territories further south have seen massive die-offs because of it. Fewer trees mean Indigenous gatherers are facing escalating competition with commercial harvesters and other private collectors.
Pine nuts are not domestically cultivated like other crops. Pinyon trees are typically found on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the U.S. Forest Service, which also set harvesting regulations.
The Forest Service and BLM issue commercial harvesting permits every year to businesses on available parcels. In 2016, the Bureau of Land Management issued 11 permits for about a total of 127,000 pounds of pine nuts. In 2017 it was 12 permits for about 215,750 pounds of pine nuts. None were awarded in 2018 due to a lack of available pine nuts— likely due to smaller snow caps that season — and in 2019 only 5 permits for around 33,000 pounds were awarded.
Pine nut consumption has almost doubled in the last decade, selling for up to $40 per pound, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.
Some research says a healthy piñon forest can generate $4,000 to $10,000 per acre, when one acre of forest produces 250 pounds of nuts. Other research shows pine nuts are nearly impossible to cultivate successfully because of the time they take to grow and and the limited environment they can grow in.
Two firms have accounted for a large portion of the BLM pine nuts permits, Wholesale Pine Nuts and Leany Pine Nuts. The companies did not respond to requests for comment.
A harvest that can take decades to replace
Many of those permits awarded throughout the years were for the Battle Mountain range in Nevada, part of which traverse near the Walker River Walker Tribe.
“Our people are starting to see more and more damage from other people ransacking our areas and being able to come in and pillage the whole area,” said Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “Our people are crying out to stop selling the permits for the trees and pine nuts.”
“It’s very disrespectful,” Torres said. “A lot of our tribe takes pride in being able to go out and do this, but the more people cut down our sacred areas, cultural areas, our prayer areas and continue to desecrate the area, it won’t be there any longer for future generations.”
Pinyon groves can take decades to re-establish — sometimes as long as 50 to 100 years, according to the BLM. They grow just a few inches a year, and pine nuts take two years to mature for harvest, Torres said over-harvesting threatens the health of the forest.
“Imagine someone who has no vested interest in those trees or what they produce every year or being fragile with them or doing anything in a cultural or traditional way,” Torres said of commercial harvesters. “They’re going to cut and damage those limbs and do anything to get those cones.”
Climate disruption also hurts traditional pine nut hunting, said Stacey Montooth, an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe and the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, further threatening the traditional staple.
“Certainly climate change is impacting the traditional pine nut hunting that our people do,” Montooth said. “It is such an ancient pastime, and with climate change the resources are definitely more scarce.”
In the last decade professional harvesters have capitalized on the harvest and sale of pine nuts, creating even more scarcity of the grain, said Montooth.
“It’s become extremely chic or vogue to go to fancy restaurants and have pine nuts on your salads,” Montooth said. “What has sustained our people for thousands and thousands of years is now a hot commodity.”
‘They just fried … They shriveled up’
In March, the Nevada Indian Commission will host the Traditional Ecological Knowledge Summit, where scientists and environmentalists will join with tribal communities to figure out how to care for areas affected by climate change and other threats.
Elders of the Walker River Paiute Tribe not long ago traveled to an area they believed the harvest would be plentiful after good signs in May, only to find the sun had baked the pinecones.
“They just fried,” said Torres. “They shriveled up, and pine nuts were scarce that year. And our biggest thing is what are we going to have to do? Our traditional areas are being ransacked by everyone else prior to tribes getting out there. What are we going to have to do? Are we going to have to go to a store and purchase these?”
In response to tribal complaints, the Forest Service and BLM started a communication plan in 2016 as a way to inform tribes on parcels that were open for auction. The BLM does not actively track the thousands of pounds collected each year, saying it would be too time consuming.
Coreen Francis, BLM’s lead forester in Nevada, said in reality, the agency doesn’t keep track of the available pine nuts or whether they are dwindling when issuing permits.
“The only indicator of that is what gets sold at the auction each year,” said Francis. “We don’t have an inventory that covers the whole landscape of how much cones are produced. It’s just such a vast landscape that there is no way to inventory that each year.”
The BLM gives public notification of auction sites and gathers feedback and input on the units available. Once parcels are awarded tribes are also notified of permits given, said Francis. Every contract and harvest is monitored, and among the requirements for permit holders, all cultural sites or artifacts are to be avoided and preserved.
“We do not issue any commercial permits out of our Carson City office,” Francis said. “There’s a lot more personal collectors and so we don’t throw in commercial permitting in the mix there to alleviate any tribal concerns of over-harvesting in the part of the state where there’s high density collection.”
But the personal connection to the crop and the practice of collecting it complicates the presence of commercial harvesters for some tribes.
“That is something sacred and traditional for our culture and our people,” Torres said. “The biggest thing is that these commercial pickers, or people that are allowed to go up to our pine nuts hills and desecrate our areas, don’t understand how they are supposed to treat the area and how they are supposed to leave the area.”
“They are breaking limbs, they are taking more than need be, almost for greed because it’s commercial,” said Torres. “They are making money off this and not taking into account the medicine we have out there. The animals that habitat the area.”
But not all tribes are alike. Most of the permits awarded by the BLM Ely District, part of which overlaps with the Ely Shoshone Tribe, a smaller tribe of about 300 residents in Northern Nevada.
“If we felt in any way that it infringed on our opportunities to pick, or that BLM did not allow us to have communication with the pickers, I think we would have a problem with the harvesters. But so far I have not seen that,” said Diana Bucknar, chair of the Ely Shoshone Tribe.
Harvesting pine nuts is less of a cultural fixture for the Ely Shoshone Tribe. It’s grueling work, Bucknar said, and because of an agreement with the harvesters, a percentage of what is picked is given to the tribe.
In the dryer more arid parts of Nevada, near the Walker River Paiute tribe, Torres said she sees the damage done to trees from commercial harvesters and climate change and worries about the future of the pine trees in other parts of Nevada.
“We want this tradition to continue,” Torres said. “We want to pass this knowledge to the next seven generations so they will continue to provide for our people.”