The pinyon pine is not what you might call “charismatic megaflora.” North America’s Pacific and Intermountain West are home to some remarkable trees: the California redwood (the tallest), Giant Sequoia (the biggest), and Bristlecone pine (the oldest). The pinyon pine is a scrubby little tree that forms a short, round crown. It does not reach the superlative register of tree species you find in books and museums. What does stand out are the seeds produced by the pinyon pine, which are large and round rather than winged like most seeds produced by pines. They are not only nutritious, but have a rich taste that is nothing like imported pine nuts you find in the supermarket. There ample evidence of more than ten thousand years of continuous human habitation in Great Basin forests, contradicting the tourist’s lament of the Great Basin as an inhospitable desert wasteland. In fact, heterogeneity is the best word to describe Great Basin environments—the high mountain ranges carry a heavy snowpack that discharges in the spring, feeding wet meadows and meandering rivers that find no outlet to the sea. The alkali flats might see only a handful of inches of rain each year, but the mountain tops could see several dozen inches. Artesian springs are widespread in the valleys and mountains—you just have to know where to look.
Although you will find pure stands of pinyon or juniper across the North American West, they are co-present more often than not. The juniper is a heartier species that thrives in harsher environments than pinyon can handle. There are more than seventy species of juniper across the world (often called cedars—even though most are not related to the Lebanon cedar) that exist in varied climates across the world from the Himalaya to the equatorial highlands of eastern Africa. The northernmost stands of pinyon reported to exist are somewhere between Fort Collins, Colorado and Laramie, Wyoming on the east slope of the Rocky Mountains. Junipers in North America, though, grow much further north (up into Canada). Meanwhile, pinyon pine is found far south into the mountains of central Mexico. There are twelve species of pinyon pine and most of them are found in Mexico. Central Mexico was an important center for the evolution of pine species, which accounts for the large number of species found there. Only two pinyon species occur in large numbers in the western U.S.: single-leaf pinyon and Colorado pinyon. The western Great Basin almost exclusively features the single-leaf pinyon which is better adapted to a precipitation cycle that brings most moisture as snow in the winter and run-off in the spring, while Colorado pinyon is better adapted to monsoon precipitation cycle that brings most moisture as the rain in the summer.
The historical context for the pinyon-juniper forests is an essential part of this story. It was not just pinyon and juniper that faced widespread removal from the 1950s to the 1980s—sagebrush was also maligned for its expansion into pre-white settlement grasslands (see Sayre 2017). The “conifer expansion” thesis that holds sway among range managers today suggests that pinyon-juniper woodlands have infilled to create much denser stands and expanded to “encroach” on former sagebrush steppe and grasslands over the past 150 years. The reason this change occurred, according to proponents of this view, is the exclusion of fire from the landscape. The logic is that regular fires would burn through woodlands and prevent them from growing on fine-grained soils of the lowlands. During the mid-twentieth century, federal land managers argued that dense woodlands created the conditions for severe erosion, which necessitated conifer removal to restore an understory that could hold the soil in place. In recent years, range managers justify conifer removal on the basis of unnatural infill of woodlands and expansion into erstwhile shrublands and grasslands that threaten the health of sage grouse populations. However, recent research shows that if you look at the overall distribution of pinyon-juniper, there is actually a net decline in the area of these woodlands since the 1980s. This means there are areas of die-back that outnumber those where expansion has taken place. There is a need for new ideas about how to manage pine nut forests that account for the impacts of climate change and the value these forests provide to many kinds of wildlife, in addition to the cultural importance of these landscape to Indigenous peoples across the Southwest. New silvicultural approaches are taking a more careful approach to understanding ecological change in pinyon forests—including a biocultural approach that better addresses the importance of Indigenous knowledge and management practices, in addition to the need to protect these trees for the benefit of Great Basin Indigenous nations that maintain important relationships with these forests.
new approaches are important, because there is a need for more inclusive
landscape stewardship. This requires making space for different kinds of
knowledge and the prioritization of culturally-informed land management. Too
often Indigenous nations are excluded from public land management or given
short shrift in planning processes that fail to respect their values and knowledge.
This was the focus of my Ucross project, and in the next blog post, I will
detail an example of what this model might look like for rural communities and
land managers in the pine nut forests the US Southwest.
 (R. Lanner 1981)
 (Romme et al. 2009)
 (Clemmer 1985; Falk, William 2015; Flake and Weisberg 2019; R. Lanner 1981; R. M. Lanner 2012)
Paul Berne Burow, Western Resources Fellow | Paul is a student in the combined doctoral degree program between the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Department of Anthropology at Yale University. Paul’s work examines how changing ecosystems impact rural communities in Nevada and California. Paul’s research draws from mixed-method social scientific approaches in anthropology, geography, and ecology. See what Paul has been up to. | Blog