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Why is the BLM clearing vast swaths of piñon-juniper forests across the West?

Slash and Burn – Sierra Club -“Over the years, I have often seen the evidence of this mass deforestation: in geometric clearcuts along the ranges of Catron County, New Mexico; in old-growth piñon forest reduced to pulp on the remote Tavaputs Plateau in Utah; in vast fields of stumps on rugged mountainsides in the basin and range country of Nevada. “Treated” is the term preferred by range managers to describe the undertaking. But this is little more than a bureaucratic euphemism: The trees are felled with saws, poisoned with herbicides, ripped from the ground with massive chains dragged by bulldozers, chewed to bits by machines called “bull hogs” and “giant masticators,” and burned with hand torches and incendiary “ping pong balls” filled with potassium permanganate and dropped from helicopters. Federal land managers once declared openly—even proudly—that this clearcutting was for a single purpose: to increase the land available for livestock grazing. “For as long as most of us have been aware of the piñon-juniper woodland type, we have looked upon the aggressive juniper and the scrubby piñon as weeds in need of eradication,” wrote David Tidwell, a special assistant to the director of the BLM, in 1986. “That’s not a goal to be ashamed of. Hundreds of thousands of acres of underproducing rangeland have been transformed into highly productive grazing land.”

Today, the deforestation (or “conifer removal” in the clinical patois of the land managers) is couched in the buzzwords of ecological stewardship. The trees are being cut down to increase the “resilience” of woodland ecosystems or to reduce the “fuel load” in the nation’s forests or, most often, to protect sagebrush-steppe habitat for the threatened sage grouse. “Removing encroaching juniper will improve conditions for greater sage grouse and many other species that depend on a healthy sagebrush-steppe ecosystem,” reads a 2018 BLM press release calling for the elimination of more than half a million acres of juniper forest in the remote Owyhee Mountains, straddling Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada…”

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