The federal government plans to remove an unprecedented number of pinyon-juniper trees in Nevada, contending it will reduce fire risk and improve habitat for sage grouse.
And it plans to do it fast.
On Monday, the Bureau of Land Management announced a proposal to expedite review and approval of projects across the west that involve the breaking down of thousands of pinyon-juniper trees in Nevada to make way for the growth of sagebrush, which is vital for the survival of sage grouse, by establishing a new “categorical exclusion” for the trees under the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Improving sagebrush ecosystems by removing Pinyon-juniper woodland is an established and well-studied practice,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt. “If finalized, this proposed categorical exclusion would eliminate needless analysis, so we can more quickly protect and restore sagebrush habitat and reduce the threat of wildfires for the benefit of mule deer, sage-grouse and hundreds of other native species,”
But scientists and environmental groups argue the bureau has failed to conduct a thorough environmental analysis for the removal of thousands of acres of native trees, which they believe will have far-reaching consequences for the ecological diversity of the Great Basin.
Some critics also contend that if BLM were sincerely concerned about sage grouse it would protect ecosystems with passive restoration techniques, such as closing areas to grazing livestock, instead of allowing them to be compromised by the minerals and livestock industries.
One tree removal project in the works is the Egan and Johnson Basins Restoration Project comprising about 85,0000 acres of land in White Pine County 50 miles northwest of Ely.
As part of the proposal, the BLM plans to use chaining—a controversial practice that involves dragging an anchor chain between two bulldozers to tear trees out of the ground— though the method has been found to irreparably harm the landscape, according to the bureau’s own management plan.
Heavy equipment use on fragile desert landscape threatens to spur erosion and encourage flammable invasive species like cheatgrass, which is responsible for increased wildfire threats in western states, scientists say.
“The ground is so disturbed that cheatgrass comes in,” said Laura Cunningham, California Director of the Western Watersheds Project, which has challenged pinyon-juniper tree removal for years. “When you trample it, drive on it, graze it you create an environment for cheatgrass.”
Officials concede there is “sometimes” growth of invasive cheatgrass around areas that have undergone pinyon-juniper tree removal, but say the removal process includes a blend of seeds composed of native grasses and non-native vegetation to combat the growth of cheatgrass.
“We understand that cheatgrass is a risk,” said Cody Coombs, Ely district fuels program manager for BLM. “There is a lot of research that we look at to determine where we’re going to put these projects.”
Some ranchers in Nevada have dubbed pinyon-juniper as “weed trees,” arguing that the native trees steal the nutrients and water from the soil, keeping other species of flora cattle feed on from growing and preventing the aquifers they rely on from recharging.
“The detractors all say the same thing,” said sheep rancher Hank Vogler, chair of the Nevada Rangeland Resources Commission. “That we’re opening this up for livestock and yes when they take those trees out they open up space for grasses that are consumable to cattle, but they’re also consumable to wild horses, deer, bighorn sheep. So there is a benefit.”
Several environmental groups have called for independent scientists to study the land more carefully and determine the best course of action.
“They need to do a much better job of scientifically supporting their experiments in Nevada,” Cunningham said. “We are just not seeing habit restoration going into effect with the agencies.”
The Farm Bill passed by Congress in 2018 included a provision which strips environmental review of pinyon-juniper projects – putting them essentially in the same category as weeds — and allows the removal of up to 4500 acres of pinyon-juniper trees in one fell swoop.
There’s debate over whether the growth of juniper-pinyon trees near sage grouse habitat is an “encroachment,” which only escalated after President Donald Trump issued an executive order in December to increase logging in U.S. forests, allowing federal agencies to sidestep environmental review and public input in order to curb deadly wildfires.
Fire has also historically played a key role in removing dead vegetation. Naturally occurring fires would periodically clear out and thin the density of the trees but human interference has interrupted the process, said Coombs.
“We have put out every wildfire, it’s just historically what we’ve done,” Coombs said. “We have disrupted that cycle. These projects are really meant to restore the health of the lands.”
The density of trees becomes a fire hazard during the summer and is more likely to smolder extremely high temperatures that damage the land, Coombs said, adding that there is evidence that Native Americans traditionally maintained the land until the industrialization of the west which has led to overgrowth.
Tribal members in Nevada have also questioned the quick advancement of pinyon-juniper tree removal in the state.
“We did talk with the BLM about some of these projects to clear out the trees and let them know the significance of the juniper tree. We use them for medicinal purposes,” said Chairman Rupert Steele from the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. “The pine trees are also sacred to us because they grow pine nuts, which is our traditional staple food.”
Pinyon groves can take decades to re-establish — sometimes as long as 50 to 100 years, according to the BLM. The trees and the pine nuts they produce are an important cultural foundation of tribes across Nevada.
“They are moving really fast and I don’t know how much they are considering the tribal issues and concerns. They received it. Acknowledge it. But that’s about it,” Steele said.
“Rather than remove those trees we need to thank them,” Steele said. “We pray for the wood and thank it for providing for us. We want to see them there. We look at it that way. When you start talking that way they think you’re nuts but that is our land.”
Cunningham said she has seen little scientific evidence indicating that tree removal has helped boost the sage grouse population, characterizing the projects as “a lot of experimentation out in the field by agencies.”
“The agencies have been chainsawing down thousands of acres of this [habitat] yet the greater sage grouse continue to fall. They’re declining despite all of this supposed mitigation and conservation actions to chainsaw down native trees,” Cunningham said.
Grouse numbers have continued to drop in 2019 in Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Wyoming. In 2019 Nevada reported an 8 percent fewer males on breeding-ground leks, though state officials say there have been improvements in select habitats.
Endemic species also rely on pinyon-juniper trees. Research funded in part by the federal government determined such treatments imperil the pinyon jay, whose population has plummeted 85 percent since 1970.
“People need to realize it’s a native plant that’s been here for thousands of years so we shouldn’t be removing it,” Cunningham said.