The piñon-juniper woodland, with its resident cacophony of pinyon jays, needs us to see into its heart.
As he wreaks havoc on our lives and our nation, Donald Trump seems to demonstrate a special hatred for the southern Utah redrock country I call home.
He has eviscerated and deconsecrated Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. He’s intent on opening up every last square inch of public land, to keep fossil fuel profiteers in business, to preserve the petroleocracy.
He caters to Utah’s tiny-in-number but politically powerful cattlemen and county commissioners by cheerfully implementing their demands to uproot hundreds of thousands of acres of native trees and shrubs and reseed with non-native grasses for cows to eat. Ranching is the bedrock of the economy, right?
Trump’s implacable aggression toward my home landscape takes direct aim at the piñon-juniper woodland of the Southwest—the third most extensive plant community in the country—a landscape I love. And so I’ve got to speak up.
This humble scatter of conifers (needing only ten trees per acre to qualify as “forest”) is the X-axis of the Desert West, the baseline. Skirting the mountains, perched above the basins and bajadas—from 4,500 to 6,500 feet in hot, dry places where few other trees can survive—lies the woodland affectionately known to Southwesterners as “p-j.”
Piñons and junipers are the size of humans. We don’t look down at them, casually, and we don’t gaze up in awe. We are equal in scale. “Tree” usually means tall, vertical, but these trees often are round. They have the reserved warmth of a Native grandmother. When you live in piñon-juniper woodland, you live with the trees, not under them. You participate, you reside.
With plenty of water, junipers can grow as rotund and fecund as the Venus of Willendorf, the Paleolithic figurine who graces the first few pages of every art history book. Bundles of scaly needle-leaves weigh down branches like the florets of broccoli or cauliflower. Junipers have supplied Native people with firewood, fiber (bark for weaving and shelter), and berries (for food, jewelry, and medicine) for millennia. In Francis Elmore’s 1944 classic Ethnobotany of the Navajo, a search for “juniper” yields 155 hits, from Night and Wind Chants to prayersticks, from cradle linings to “talisman.” Hopi people still revere junipers, the most abundant tree of their high desert home: “These trees trap the clouds and bring the rain,” says traditionalist Lyman Polacca. “They’re like our rainforest.”
Piñons are looser-limbed true pines, with familiar needles and cones chockfull of nuts, the most important food for Native people anywhere they grow. Former Utah state archaeologist Kevin Jones ranks piñon a keystone species and pine nut protein and fat a critical winter resource. In a good harvest year, “you would store big caches close to where you gathered them because you can’t haul them a long way. And so there are great concentrations of winter campsites in the piñon-juniper.” In Utah, 85 percent of archaeological sites are found in p-j.
Southwest Native peoples nurture robust relationships with piñons and junipers. Edison Wato, from the Pueblo of Zuni, says, “For us, woodlands are not just terminology—they are our very life! They are part of us.”
The sturdy piñons support incredible biodiversity—at least 1,000 species depend on these pines for habitat and food. When ethnobiologist Gary Nabhan mapped the food nations of North America, he gave “piñon nut nation” the same weight as “salmon nation” or “bison nation.”
Piñon nuts are also essential to the lives of pinyon jays, the bird that has most dramatically co-evolved with these trees. Raucous flocks of jays harvest piñon nuts in fall, cache them in the ground, and then return in spring to harvest the buried nuts to feed early-nesting mates and young. And the trees need the birds to disperse their seeds—for the jays remember “only” about 95 percent of all those caches, and forgotten nuts sprout to pioneer new piñon groves. Ron Lanner, the wise elder of bird-pine ecology, says simply, “piñons were invented by jays.”
Each tree is distinct, preserving centuries of climatic records in exquisite detail, decipherable right down to the storm season with modern isotope techniques. Junipers twist around themselves, dead limbs eroding to points, as if pulled to their limits by Giacometti, the sculptor intent on capturing their attenuated grace. Piñons erode to stubs, their shallow-rooted snags blowing over in storms, rolling onto their crowns, upside-down candelabras. Junipers and piñon pines can live for 1,500 years; a few reach twice that age. Mike Popejoy, research associate for the Grand Canyon Trust, values junipers as much as he does piñons. He sees “intimacy and poetry” in how these “badass” trees endure, “the first trees to show up in places where no other trees can grow, paragons of survival.”
Barging into this richly evolved ecological community come the cattlemen and their Bureau of Land Management enablers to “treat” woodland by the hundreds of thousands of acres. The tree destruction serves their plan to engineer the landscape for the profit of the few, replacing pines with grass and shrubs for cows and huntable elk and mule deer. “Some managers treat piñon and juniper trees like weeds,” Popejoy says. He laments the federal agencies’ willingness to “sacrifice native plants and animals on the altar of the cow.” To Popejoy’s chagrin, “even though grazing is the most ecologically destructive thing happening on public lands, the agencies are juggernauting ahead at breakneck speed based on ideology to provide ranchers all the help they can get.” The Trump administration views public lands as a generator of income and nothing else.
Let’s be clear what “treatment” means. In the passive language of a 2019 Wild Utah Project report, “anchor chains from large destroyer or cruiser ships, 40 to 160 pounds per link and 90 to 350 feet long, are pulled between two crawler tractors traveling parallel to each other. Trees and shrubs in the path of the chain are uprooted, pruned, or topped.” These chains can weigh more than 20,000 pounds.
A “Bull Hog masticator is a large metal drum attached to a front end loader or excavator. It shreds trees and other vegetation into mulch which is typically left on site, and sometimes burned in place.”
Chaining had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. In these early days of his career, archaeologist Kevin Jones surveyed areas proposed for chaining, recording cultural sites in the way of the bulldozers. He remembers the experience “with great horror. I felt like I was a funeral director. I realized I may be one of the last people to see these beautiful hills and archaeological sites before this place is completely devastated and destroyed.”
But does “treatment” achieve its goal?
In 2019, conservation biologists at the Wild Utah Project completed a review of decades of research on the “treatment” of piñon-juniper woodland. They found that 70 percent of the time, these efforts do not create the intended boost in range quality, either yielding no measurable effects or actually proving harmful. Possible consequences for resident animals vary—from benefits to sage grouse in rare wet springs, to unknown impacts on a vast number of invertebrates and small mammals, to catastrophic harm to pinyon jays. Jay populations have declined by 84 percent since 1970 and are projected to lose another 50 percent in the next 20 years. They are a signature sacrifice to our bovine idols.
In the fourth year of the Trump administration, the Bureau of Land Management has issued an accelerating flurry of overlapping policies encouraging range managers to obliterate vast tracts of native vegetation in the West. The obfuscating language in these directives is nearly impenetrable. The scale of potential destruction is nearly inconceivable. As Allison Jones, emeritus executive director of the Wild Utah Project, says, “I think, as a biologist, the BLM is playing fast and loose with these systems every time they do these huge treatments. They’re gambling. And the public hasn’t woken up to the massive scale.”
A new categorical exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act would allow the BLM to remove piñon and juniper trees on public lands in projects up to 10,000 acres with no environmental analysis, public accountability, or public input. If the BLM pursues a series of 10,000-acre assaults, the agency can perpetrate destructive change on entire bioregions spanning six Western states.
How big is 10,000 acres? Nearly 16 square miles. For comparison, Manhattan Island covers 22 square miles.
The agency released a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for “fuels reduction and rangeland restoration” that allows massive vegetation removals anywhere within 223 million acres of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Other new rules authorize 11,000 miles of “fuel breaks.” No public review or input on site-specific proposals required. Few exceptions made for wilderness study areas or national monuments.
None of these plans insist on long-term monitoring to measure success or failure. Few pay attention to damage to biological soil crust or increases in invasive species like cheatgrass. None consider the certainty that surface disturbance will increase desertification, increase atmospheric dust levels, and erase forest carbon sinks.
The public may know nothing of these projects and their staggering size until after irreversible deforestation, when what was once a healthy piñon-juniper forest is now a field of wood chips.
Without that counterbalance of public input, a BLM that has been hemorrhaging biologists, botanists, soil scientists, and cultural resource specialists under Trump plunges ahead, prioritizing extraction over extinction. Native traditional knowledge and sacred places have no weight. The agency sends obligatory letters of consultation to Native leaders and then moves ahead before COVID-stressed tribal governments have a chance to respond.
Conservation and conservative have the same Latin root. The conservative approach (to conserve both rangeland and biodiversity) would suggest backing off these massive ill-conceived attacks on piñon-juniper woodland. As the conservation biologists at Wild Utah Project suggest, implement the least intensive, lowest risk, lowest cost actions first, like removing cattle from the landscape and seeding with native species. Leave all surface-disturbing activities as a last resort. Large expanses of sagebrush with grasses and wildflowers eaten down to nubs by cattle do not constitute “restoration.”
In a July 2020 piece in The New Yorker about The Chicks dropping “Dixie” from their name, Amanda Petrusich wonders, “Is it possible to love a place and to also disclaim its history? Does the place begin to disappear when its foundational myths are challenged?”
We keep bumping up against myth in the public lands West, too. We thought we had moved beyond the lone gunman, whether outlaw or sheriff, and then along comes Cliven Bundy and his sons, standing up for their imagined “freedom.” We think we have entered an era of common-sense ecological management of our public lands in the face of climate change and shattering losses of biodiversity, but the county commissioners in rural Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming insist against all evidence that nothing matters more than cows. That “invasive” piñons and junipers must go.
It’s time to chuck the “foundational myths” of the West—the ones that lead us to think only as Wallace Stegner’s extractive “boomers,” to shear the land of whatever “crop” makes us colonists and settlers a quick buck. Instead, we have plenty of older and more compassionate myths to reclaim, rooted in the land and its natural communities, storied by hundreds of generations of Native traditional knowledge, illuminated by science.
The piñon-juniper woodland with its resident cacophony of pinyon jays needs us to see into its heart. To marvel at the coevolved vitality we find there. To push back against these politically empowered schemers of destruction. To insist on incorporating traditional knowledge and Native co-management into stewardship of our public lands. And to continue to love this essential landscape so many of us call home.