Pinyon and juniper trees, demonized by ranchers, miners and water mining entities, are being eyed by Chinese “biomass” companies with the backing of politicians.
Recently the Nevada Pinyon-Juniper Partnership, aided by USDA, set up a conference to discuss pinyon and juniper trees. At the conference were several players in government and business who have an interest in the removal of pinyon and juniper trees in the Great Basin. Bob Abbey, the director of the BLM, attended the meeting.
Most people don’t think of the Great Basin when they think of old growth forests but the pinyon-juniper forests there are ancient forests with several hundred year old trees that provide important habitats and food for many species of birds like pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, black throated gray warblers, small mammals, nesting raptors. The charismatic seed-caching Clark’s nutcracker faces catastrophic food shortages in the Rockies due to whitebark pine die-off. It relies on large-seeded pines – and the pinyon pine has a superb large seed that was also vital to supporting Native American cultures in the Great Basin.
The refuge provided by these trees are probably the only reason that central Nevada has any elk at all. They are one of the important components that keep the entire Great Basin Ecosystem together because they retain snow later into the year due to their shade and absorb CO2. Their destruction would promote global warming and desertification by making the area hotter and drier.
The history of animosity towards pinyon juniper trees is a long one. As with sagebrush, for many years ranchers have been getting BLM and FS to use our tax dollars to fund removal of p-j forests to promote livestock forage. They recruited the College of Agriculture at the University of Nevada, Reno, to concoct biased science to justify p-j killing projects. Test projects were initiated, but not evaluated, where p-j forests were chained, cut down or burned, that often resulted in unforeseen (to some) effects such as cheatgrass invasion. A false comparison was concocted where researchers claimed that p-j forests should have an open understory like seen in ponderosa pine forests which are subject to frequent repeated fires. Generally p-j forests are subject to small, spotty fires or major stand replacing fires.
By conveniently ignoring the fact that the p-j forests were heavily utilized during the mining days of the 19th century for fueling smelters, ranchers try to promote the false assertion that p-j are “encroaching” into areas where they previously didn’t grow when, in actuality, they are recolonizing areas where they were cut down. Proposals to destroy p-j forests by dragging huge chains between two tractors were made but they were shot down in court by Western Watersheds Project in 2002 so the proponents of p-j thinning have gone back to the drawing board.
Now it is being claimed that p-j are responsible for reductions in sage grouse populations because sage grouse avoid areas with tall structures or trees used by avian predators for perches to prey on them. This has been a very convenient argument because it distracts away from the fact that a century and a half of overgrazing has brought devastating changes in the form of weeds, sagebrush destruction, soil erosion, increased fire frequency, and other habitat degradation to the lower elevation areas that sage grouse depend on. While the ranchers squeeze the lower elevation habitat they are putting pressure on the agencies to kill p-j on higher elevation habitat under the guise of sage grouse “habitat restoration”.
On top of this pressure from the ranchers, foreign mining companies, who have bought up ranches and gained control of a number of grazing allotments, eye the p-j with disdain because the trees are in the way of expansion of existing and new mines. If the trees are cut down under another guise then it is easier to argue that they should be allowed to expand their operations. Another proponent of p-j thinning in Nevada is the water mining Southern Nevada Water Authority who has also bought up ranches and gained control of a number of grazing allotments. They eye the p-j with disdain because they transpire precious water that they want to mine and pipe to water Las Vegas.
Now a new player enters the p-j matrix. With the support of Senator Harry Reid, county commissioners, and ranchers, A-Power, a Chinese company, is pushing to use the p-j for “biomass” to fuel power generating facilities. Nothing could be more unsustainable than using ancient forests of the Great Basin for biomass.
Interestingly, a Chinese windmill assembly plant near Las Vegas is controlled by an entity named RePower that also has curried favor with Reid.
In an effort to move forward with landscape level p-j destruction projects a number of groups are formulating a plan for a 2 million acre “demonstration project” where they would thin the forests using money from the sales of public lands under the authority of the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act or other federal funds that are supposed to be used for sage grouse restoration. This money would then be funneled through the Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition which is a non-profit with a history of funding research which supports vegetation killing under the guise of “habitat restoration”. This would be done to reduce federal contracting requirements. As recently as 2008, current BLM director Bob Abbey was a “trustee” of the ENLC.
Great Basin pine nuts are prized, limited harvest occurs, and the value of nut production would far exceed the value of beef that could be produced by the destroyed land.