June 2009

A case for pinon management

By William Hendrickson

There is vigorous discussion today amongst different camps of forest managers and scientists concerned about fire control and fire use. A new component in the debate is the idea that forest fires put out an immense amount of CO2, which has consequences for global warming.

As reported elsewhere, forest scientist Tom Bonnickson has been upbraided by others in the forestry and environmental communities because he promotes the logic that it is good to use trees for their product, thus reducing the density of the forest stand to make it more fire-safe. Bonnicksen is seen by his detractors as a reckless forest destroyer. But the alternate point of view holds that the real recklessness lies in trying to preserve the forest until it is burned in hopeless fury.

Typically the discussion centers on species like ponderosa and lodgepole pine, which are valuable lumber species, but it is also pertinent for our piñon-juniper forest just as it is for all the others. Piñon-juniper is Colorado's most widely distributed forest type, as it is found in our drier environments at the lower elevations. Sometimes it is seen as valueless, in which case there are attempts to eliminate it outright. And, in other cases, when value is detected, the forest is high-graded to take the best trees for poles and clear wood, leaving a degraded stand behind.

The newer concern about forest fires producing CO2 is a viewpoint not too welcome to fire ecologists, who have been telling us for some time that fire is basic to the ecosystems they manage. Thus foresters have been lighting controlled burns and have been accepting of free-ranging uncontrolled burns in remote   areas because they believed the fire had a natural role in the health of their territory.

For a long time I thought this way, too. But now there is this change in opinion that we do not want fire because of its global consequences — no matter how beneficial it can be locally.

Bonnicksen’s point is that it would be far better to take out the logs before they burn. The carbon they contain should be usefully sequestered in constructed works. But, secondary to this, the logs can be beneficially used for stove wood.

Since homesteading days our southwestern piñon-juniper has been largely unmanaged and is now a stagnant tangled mess. It took a long time to get this way. Some researchers say this is the natural order. Their studies show that piñon-juniper forests naturally go for 400 years between burns. But after 400 years, the piñon-juniper burns with the satanic fury we have seen in some places.

And now it is pretty clear that the piñon has a difficult time getting seed back into the burned soil to grow a replacement stand. From such an observation, there is an intuitive argument that ferocious, satanic fires simply do not belong in the PJ.

The plea here is that we recognize that there is value in our long-neglected piñon-juniper forest. It is legitimate to use the trees for posts and firewood. Trees need space to grow. The 2003 beetle kill greatly reduced the number of piñons and provided space for the few trees left. Now, at my place north of the San Juan Basin Technical College, a wood-cutter is taking the bug-killed trees and some of the poorer junipers and selling the product for firewood. People who buy it contribute to making the land fire-safe and promote a favorable ecology. The cutter sells the wood in our local economy for his profit.

Our local forests should have an understory of grass and forbs. The open-spaced trees in the piñon-juniper give a chance for this to happen. I firmly believe this was the picture before overgrazing removed the forest understory in the late 1800s. Up to that time, periodic low-intensity fire promoted the grass and, on a chance basis, killed individual trees. Space was maintained between them.

So, can we understand that horrific satanic fire has no place here? In the face of the potential for global warming there is new reason to see that it is environmentally wrong. It denies us use of forest product. On the other hand, In our high-desert piñon-juniper, management can increase the production of useful wood.

But now there is the nuance introduced above. I bring it up for the particular attention of the county fire organizations. Given that satanic fire is so wrong, light, gentle fire would be nice. This fire will reinvigorate the native grass. It will create conditions for the sprouting of the native seed which has been stored in the soil for decades, and it will keep the trees spaced out. A handsome park-like stand of piñon-juniper will be perpetuated.

Is this scheme correct? Isn’t it the best management practice for the forests and woodlots of the agricultural lands in Montezuma County? Can’t we thin the stagnant tangled forest, use the product, and make the land firesafe? Could we then make it clear that when only the grass under the trees is burning in a light fire, it will be best to stand back and let it continue?

There is an informal group of county landowners and managers asking these questions and we propose a meeting in the field to search out what one another thinks. A date will be picked. Call me at 565-8907 if you want to be included.

On the other hand, if you just want firewood, harvested with the environmental logic discussed here, use the same number.

William Hendrickson writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.