Standing in a pinyon-juniper forest on a high slope above Cave Valley not far from Ely, Nevada, I am lost in an ancient vision. It is a vision born under sublime skies stretching above wide, flat valleys bounded by the dramatic mountains of the Great Basin. The vision grows with the rising flames of morning in the east. The night was cold, but clear, and the sun brings a welcome warmth. When the sun crests the mountains, red and orange clouds stream across the sky while shadows pull back from the valley floor to reveal pronghorn antelope dancing through the sage brush. A few ridge lines away, the clatter of talus accompanies the movement of bighorn sheep. The slap and crack of bighorn rams clashing their heads together echoes through the valley.
As the morning passes, the sun shines through pine needles and juniper branches to dapple the forest floor in silvers and golds. The trees offer shade where patches of snow glimmer and whisper with the smallest sounds of melting. Pinyon pine cones are scattered across the ground. As they open, their seeds – delicious, nourishing pine nuts – become visible. Beautiful, blue-feathered pinyon jays gather the nuts in their beak before flying off to cache them for the deepening winter.
Humans have long participated in this vision though the vision is far older than them. From a place deeper than my mind’s memory, in the memories of the borrowed materials forming my body, I feel a kinship to this land’s original peoples. For thousands of years, in this part of the Great Basin, Shoshones and Goshutes have stood looking out at valleys like this one as they gathered the pine nuts that provided the most important winter food source making it possible for humans to live in the Great Basin’s harsh climate.
As I let my memory flow into the past, I see hundreds of generations of Shoshones and Goshutes living well off the gifts the land freely gives. Living in this way, I know their relationship with the land could have lasted forever. Pinyon pines could have gone on offering their pine nuts to jays, rats, and humans. Junipers could have gone on twisting in wooden gymnastics and growing their bundles of blue berries.
A herd of cattle catches my attention and I remember that this is just a vision, after all. The presence of cattle, here, forces me to confront the reality of the Great Basin’s ongoing destruction. An anxiety accompanies the cattle. It is the anxiety that flows from the knowledge of ecological collapse. I envy the hundreds of generations of Shoshones and Goshutes who had no reason to question the eternity of their culture.
Following the slow steps of brown and black cows, I see a metallic glint on the valley floor where streamers are tied onto fences built by ranchers so that sage grouse will not fly into the fences and kill themselves. I have seen the bundles of feathers and blood mangled and stuck in the wire fences. The cattle march to a shallow pond. A thin, but growing ring of algae floats on the pond’s surface while piles of cow shit litter sandy soil stripped of any vegetation. From the pond comes a strangled, gurgling sound. Despite the drought, water is being pumped from already strained wells to support the cattle.
The valley floor is striped in green and yellow patches. The green patches represent healthy, native sage brush and the yellow patches represent invasive crested wheat grass. I have learned how in the 1950s and 60s, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) initiated a series of projects designed to strip away sage brush to replace it with imported Asian crested wheat grass. Not long after white settlement cattle herds wiped out most of the native grasses in the Great Basin, so now the land must be forced to support them. Destroying the sage brush has had disastrous consequences including contributing to the collapse of sage grouse populations who, as their name suggests, require healthy sage brush for habitat.
Above the valley floors, where the pinyon-juniper forests drape across the mountains’ shoulders, are brown swaths cut into the land where the forests have fallen victim to the BLM’s so-called “vegetation treatment projects.” These vegetation treatment projects are really just clear-cuts justified by the BLM as “providing woodland products to the public,” “maintaining sage brush habitat,” and “protection of property and infrastructure.”
As my experience of this ancient vision disintegrates with the reminders of the processes threatening life in the Great Basin, I remember why I came here. I came, specifically, because I had heard of the BLM’s practice of clear-cutting pinyon-juniper forests. Friends of mine asked me to write about threats to pinyon-juniper forests. I had never seen a clear-cut pinyon-juniper forest before, I knew very little about the Great Basin at all, and I’ve always thought the best way to write about the land is to seek a true relationship with it.
So, my friend, the great activist, writer, and photographer, Max Wilbert, flew to Salt Lake from Eugene, OR and we made plans to drive from my home in Park City, UT to Nevada to see both living pinyon-juniper forests and clear-cuts. We met up with Katie Fite, a biologist and the Board Secretary for the environmental protection group, WildLands Defense. Katie brings over 30 years of on-the-ground experience to environmental advocacy possessing expertise in the Great Basin’s ecology.
I walk through the shades and shadows of a healthy pinyon-juniper forest. Songbirds create their music celebrating the beauty of their home. Social ravens gossip back and forth diving down to ask who I am. From time to time, I catch a grey glimpse of a rabbit bounding out of my path. The gentle hooting of an owl falls from the treetops. Though I am several hundred yards from any of my companions separated by ridge lines and hundreds of trees, I do not feel alone. A sense of deep familiarity, the feeling shared when friends gather, settles over me.
It is the 19th of November. The full cycle of seasons in the Great Basin carries the range of temperature extremes. The summers are dry and hot and the winters are frigid with plenty of snow. Even a single day in the Great Basin reflects these extremes. Last night dropped below freezing and I woke with a crisp layer of frost on my sleeping bag at dawn.
In the cold times like these, the slopes of the mountains are the warmest places to be because as the sun comes up and heats the air on the valley floor, the warm air rises. The slopes of the mountains are also where the pinyon-juniper forests are. By mid-morning, the sun is strong and hot. Even though the temperatures fell into the teens fahrenheit last night, the temperature gains the 60s by noon. The forests, then, are the most comfortable places to be in both the cold night and the hot day. The forests are warmer at night and in the morning than the valley floors, and when the sun beats down during the day the trees offer soothing shade.
It feels, to me, that these ancient pinyon-juniper forests enjoy caring for humans.
I feel I could walk through the forest like this for miles. Then, the trees abruptly stop. The shade ceases and the sun strikes my eyes with a physical force. A cold wind, driven wild over unbroken space, slaps my face. The sudden openness is a shock. I almost trip. Behind me is a living forest, before me is a void.
I have stepped into a clear-cut.
To my left for a mile, to my right for a mile, and a quarter mile across, the land is brown. The long limbs of pinyon pines slump across the gnarled trunks of junipers. I have only seen pictures of human massacre sites. Bodies, frozen and stiff, heaped in piles. And these clear-cuts are truly tree massacre sites.
I can tell this particular clear-cut was “chained.” Chaining is a practice employed by the BLM and is done by stretching a U.S. Navy battle-ship anchor chain between two crawler tractors. The tractors are driven parallel to each other, dragging the chain across the forest floor, and uprooting everything in the chain’s path.
The area chosen for chaining has no logic, no reason behind it. The clear-cut follows no straight lines. The path the crawler tractors took follows no pre-conceived geometric plan. No one mapped out where trees would be cut and where they wouldn’t. The cut looks more like the devastating consequence of a petulant child’s temper tantrum than the cold-calculations of forestry professionals.
Moving through the middle of the clear-cut, now, the worst part is the silence. The silence is more than the absence of sound. This is a spiritual silence. The void seeps from the empty space where a forest once stood and flows into my consciousness. Where moments before I was surrounded in the sense of the presence of life, now there is nothing. Nothing, except the rotting corpses of a once thriving forest community.
I want to know how this is possible. I want to know what justifications cleared the way for this destruction. I want to know who is behind this. I want to know why.
The history of pinyon-juniper deforestation in the Great Basin as well as a list of justifications and motivations for deforestation is too long, perhaps, for one essay. The truth is, I am still learning. I have spent the last three weeks reading everything I can about pinyon-juniper forests and I wish to sketch a broad storyline. This storyline includes dominance of ranching and mining interests in Nevada, a governmental bureaucracy that consistently drinks the kool-aid prepared by ranchers and miners, the historical amnesia that characterizes settler colonialism, insidious racism, blatant genocide, and what pinyon-juniper expert Ronald Lanner calls “dendrophobia for which there seems to be no treatment.” Because one essay cannot possibly provide the whole story – a story pinyon-juniper forests desperately need to be told – I will broadly describe the major themes in this essay and I plan on writing a series on pinyon-juniper forests exploring specific themes in more detail.
The history of pinyon-juniper deforestation in the Great Basin is a glimpse into the dominant culture’s insanity. There was a truly sustainable way to live in the Great Basin, but the arrival of European settlers doomed that way of life. The Shoshones and Goshutes lived for thousands of years hunting game in the spring and summer and gathering pine-nuts in the fall. This sustainability involved understanding how to manage their populations so the land’s ability to support humans would not be drawn down. Ronald Lanner in his foundational work “The Pinyon Pine: A Natural and Cultural History,” credits pinyon pine-nuts as the essential food source that made it possible for humans to live in the Great Basin. Of course, the Great Basin’s original peoples have always known this, and know that destroying the forests is suicidal.
European settlers arrived in droves looking for precious metals and bringing their “white man’s buffalo” (domesticated cattle). Mines were established and the only reliable source of wood in most of Nevada was pinyon-juniper forests. Lanner explains, “The production of mineral riches would not have been possible in nineteenth century Nevada without the pinyon woodlands and their vast supplies of wood. The opening of a mine was only the first of many operations necessary to convert hard rock into treasure. Huge labor forces had to be brought in to work the mines and to build and operate stamp mills, smelters, amalgamators, and concentrators. Lumber in enormous quantities was needed for these operations: timbers for shoring the mine shafts, charcoal for smelting ore, cordwood for heating and cooking. The great Nevada silver boom ran on wood.”
Lanner goes on to quantify the destruction and the numbers are absolutely devastating. He explains the destruction around Eureka, Nevada in the 1870s: “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 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.”
As is so often true, the destruction of the land is the destruction of the land’s original peoples. Lanner describes the situation in Nevada for the Shoshone as a “vicious circle” and writes, “The mining and urban activities there required huge amounts of wood and the burgeoning population consumed prodigious amounts of food. Local Indians helped provide both of these commodities by working for wages as lumberjacks and ranch hands. Those who cut down trees were destroying the source of their traditional winter food, pine nuts. Those who punched catted aided and abetted the eradication of the native grasses that provided their traditional summer fare of grass seed. The more these food sources were destroyed, the more dependent the Indians became on wages; and the more they engaged in lumbering and ranching for white men, the more they destroyed their food sources. By the time the bubble burst in the 1880s and 1890s when the mining industry collapsed, the pinyon groves were gone, the valley grasslands were fenced for cattle, and much of the old culture was forsaken.”
The 1950s ushered in the next era of pinyon-juniper deforestation as ranchers became jealous of the presence of trees on potential grazing lands. Lanner notes that since the earliest white settlements in the Great Basin, accessible tracts of woodland had always been grazed. Lanner sums it up writing that overgrazing and timber trespass “combined to make the woodland one of the worst abused vegetation types in the West: even now the acre of woodland where one can find refuge from the ubiquitous cow pat is a rarity. But, as the post-World War II hunger for red meat mounted, the Forest Service started carving up National Forest woodlands with bulldozers and chains, hoping to create greener pastures.”
The ranchers’ jealousy of trees persists to today though new justifications for deforestation have been developed to thinly disguise the ranchers’ war on forests. A recent public scoping notice published on September 29, 2015 by the BLM, Carson City District, Sierra Front Field Office is illustrative.
It is not within the scope of this essay to address the problems with each of the BLM’s justifications. Many of the justifications require their own, full essay to thoroughly undermine them and I plan on writing those essays. Several of the reasons may be addressed, here, though. The BLM’s notice makes no attempt to hide ranching interests as a primary purpose for the treatments. This is clear as the BLM explains that one purpose of the vegetation treatment project is “to maintain and enhance rangeland health.” The problem with this is the Great Basin is not rangeland. The valley floors are naturally covered in sage brush and the highlands are pinyon-juniper forests. Converting the region into rangeland is only possible through great violence.
The BLM gives another justification for the deforestation with, “A large focus of this project would be to improve and protect greater sage-grouse habitat, and treatments would be designed to address threats to greater sage-grouse from invasive annual grasses, wildfires, and conifer expansion.” Of course, it was the BLM’s own disastrous policy of sage brush clearing that led to the sage grouse collapse in the first place. The BLM goes on to blame invasive annual grasses (most of which were brought to the Great Basin by settler activities), wildfires (exacerbated by human-created climate change, drought, and the planting of imported grasses that burn more quickly than native grasses), and finally to conifer expansion. By conifer expansion, the BLM is referring to pinyon-juniper forests who are simply regrowing in regions where they had been cut down by the mining operations of the 1870s.
I hope this essay serves as an introduction to the beauty of the Great Basin’s pinyon-juniper forests, the gifts they have long provided, and the dangers confronting them. It is time the BLM’s pinyon-juniper deforestation projects be stopped. The good news is a coalition of allied activists with Deep Green Resistance and WildLands Defense is in the early stages of planning a campaign to save these beautiful, essential, ancient forests. The first step is recognizing their inherent value as living beings. Stay-tuned for more updates including ways to get involved. Join us and stand on the side of pinyon-juniper forests.