(author’s withered juniper needle clumps)
Did you know that the Federal government is overseeing a program of massive deforestation on Western public lands? Some 7.4 million acres of pinyon-juniper forest in the care of the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, Utah and southern Idaho are targeted for destruction over the next several years.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Soil Conservation Groups are using Tebuthiuron, an herbicide to ‘control ‘unwanted plant growth. BLM, in partnership with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District and the Farmington Field Office here in New Mexico, treated approximately 9,000 acres of juniper, pinion, sagebrush and other plants beginning last October.
These treatments occurred on BLM-managed, State, and private lands within San Juan, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties. The herbicide was dropped by low flying planes to kill trees, especially junipers, sages, shrubs, and vines “to keep land from being taken over” by anything besides grasses and forbs for grazing. The poison must be activated by “adequate” rainfall to penetrate the soil. It is absorbed by the roots of targeted plants to a depth of two feet, and transported to the leaves and needles where it kills the offending tree or plants (slowly) by inhibiting the plants’ ability to photosynthesize.
In Socorro N.M the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in partnership with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District also treated 4,100 acres of creosote bush and juniper with the same herbicide in early November 2019.
According to BLM the herbicide has minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because Tebuthiuron is applied in pellet form by low flying planes BLM tells us it doesn’t drift from the treated areas. When the pellets dissolve with ‘favorable’ precipitation, they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system. The pellets are not dropped near waterways (no mention is made of the distance required for safety) or on steep slopes. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s.
Past studies indicate that Tebuthiuron pellets killed about 76% of the treated junipers. Where pinions grew with junipers, more than 50% of the trees were eradicated. Wavyleaf oak, sagebrush and other bushes were also wiped out by Tebuthiuron. To date, the plan has treated more than 3 million acres across the state.
BLM assures us that although Tebuthiuron is moderately toxic when consumed by humans, the herbicide is only ‘slightly toxic’ if inhaled and is ‘practically’ non-toxic through the skin. It may cause eye irritation, they admit. Tebuthiuron does not ‘appear’ to cause developmental or reproductive effects, or to cause cancer although residue of the herbicide ends up in meat and milk products. BLM folks would have us believe the risks to exposure are minimal.
In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have a great potential for groundwater contamination due to its high water solubility, low soil particle absorption, and the fact that it has a half –life of 360 days; it remains in the ground for at least a year.
Tebuthiuron has been detected in ground water in Texas and California. According to the EPA Tebuthiuron may be nontoxic to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates, but it is slightly toxic to mammals. Tebuthiuron may pose a significant risk for on- and off-site endangered terrestrial, semi-aquatic, and aquatic plants.
In Europe, Tebuthiuron has been banned since November 2002.
According to BLM the objective of all these treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, junipers etc. These actions will result in an increase of native grasses, other herbaceous vegetation to hold soil in place and decrease erosion.
BLM couches the deforestation as environmentally friendly. The agency claims that erasing large swaths of pinyon-juniper will cut down on fires and create new habitat for the endangered greater sage grouse, a ground-nesting bird. It even claims that destroying pinyon-juniper forests will restore the threatened species.
Pinyon-juniper woodlands are the primary forests of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin and these fragrant trees cover the otherwise sparse reptilian mesas and mountains in our area and elsewhere in New Mexico. Some are old-growth trees, squat and humble, gnarled surviving many hundreds of years in the extreme cold and heat of the arid West. Junipers can live up to 1,600 years. Some Pinion pines alive today have been dated to the Renaissance.
On the ground one of the primary agents of tree destruction is a Bull Hog, a bulldozer with a spinning bladed cylinder on the front end. It knocks down and chews up everything in its path wherever it is used. In the space of an hour, the machine can eradicate an acre of pinion-juniper. The Bull Hog, paid for by taxpayers, devastates the biome (ecological community), spitting out shattered trunks and limbs, the nests of birds, the homes of animals leaving the landscape flattened, the soil denuded, the air choked with dust. Once a Bull Hog has ravaged a forest the surface soil dries out because the trees that capture precipitation and hold the soil in place are gone. Erosion becomes a brutal reality.
I was aghast when first reading about BLM dropping herbicides by planes to kill junipers and sage in our immediate area last fall because our juniper trees and plants are superbly adapted to deal with the ever increasing drought conditions associated with Climate Change, and they provide shelter and food for so many birds and animals.
What I didn’t realize then was that what is happening here in New Mexico is also occurring throughout the rest of the Southwest on a massive scale.
With Climate Change our greatest global threat it is incomprehensible to me that we would allow BLM to continue to destroy the Juniper and Pinion forests when Carbon sequestration is a global priority for human survival.
Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (trunks, branches, foliage, and roots) and soils. One tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old. Older trees sequester even more carbon. Combined with oceans, the terrestrial biosphere removes about 45% of the CO2 emitted by human activities each year. Planting small seedlings will actually do the reverse; until they are old enough, tree seedlings actually release carbon into the atmosphere.
Climatologists assure us that the Southwest is becoming dryer and hotter each year. Junipers and pinion as well as sagebrush are superbly adapted to deal with these worsening drought conditions. Other trees are not.
Without pinion, junipers, and oak to provide food and shelter our wildlife population is in deep peril. Junipers are one of the top ten species that support all wildlife. Audubon predicts that by the end of this century we will lose 2/3 of our bird species and almost all of our southwestern birds need junipers and pinion forests to survive. The pinion-juniper biome provides refuge for kestrels and hawks, black capped and mountain chickadees, black-throated gray warblers, flickers, gray flycatchers, scrub jays, pinyon jays and poorwills to mention a few. According to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, pinyon-juniper forests host more than 70 species that must have a healthy habitat as North American bird populations collapse. Nearly 3 billion birds are already missing. And by the way, regarding the sagebrush grouse, wouldn’t it be far less destructive overall to improve sage-grouse habitat by restricting livestock grazing in the areas that sage grouse currently occupy?
Removing junipers, pinion, sagebrush and other trees and bushes creates another problem. In order to remain vigorous any biome must support plant diversity and decimating the tree/plant population means that only grasses and forbs are left to feed cattle. Lack of diversity weakens the entire ecosystem and creates a perfect storm for insect infestation and disease to thrive. Deforestation of any kind, of course, adds tons of carbon into the air.
There are a few comments that I also want to address regarding the use of low flying aircraft to drop the herbicide Tebuthiuron in pellet form on the ground.
Today it is so windy that a dark raging cloud of dust totally obscures the field beyond my house. It is impossible for me to believe that once a pellet begins to disintegrate (or even if it remains whole) that winds like this wouldn’t pick up pellets/particles and disperse them elsewhere. We are prone to these winds at any time of the year and it is impossible to predict when they will hit.
BLM makes a point of stating that the pellets need “adequate” rainfall to dissolve the poison which then has to leach into the ground for two feet in order to begin eradicating the tree(s). The pellets were dropped in this area in October 2019; it is now February and this has been a dry fall and winter. My guess is that insufficient rainfall has left pellets disintegrating on top of the ground possibly posing threats to birds and wildlife.
Extreme flooding creates the opposite problems – runways for moving water – and contamination of ground water. This issue has already been addressed earlier in this article (EPA).
The fact that BLM admits that Tebuthiuron is ‘slightly toxic to mammals’ leaves me in a state of unease… my little 5 pound dogs could easily swallow one of those pellets…
Here in the Southwest we are dealing with pollution at levels that continue to increase at a disturbing level. Adult trees also absorb pollutants like lead and other toxic substances not just from the air, but from deep underground (the Poplar family which includes cottonwoods are one example of trees that clean up both the air and soil).
I also want to add an observation of my own. As some people know Western junipers are also an “indicator species.” If they are showing signs of stress from lack of water/poisoning then other less resilient trees are even more threatened. Not to take heed of this juniper tree warning would be a grave mistake…
I have a good-sized juniper that lives outside my front door. I adopted this tree as soon as I moved here watering her profusely. She rewarded me even during the worst drought I’ve witnessed (2018) by adding at least 6 – 12 inches to her girth and height with new growth. Last summer I was away and she evidently did not get enough water, because on my September return she was showing signs of stress that included lack of any new growth and many withered brown patches of dead needles were present throughout the tree (It’s important to note that some clusters of brown needles are normal but a continuous presence of withered needles indicates a problem). After removing all the dead bundles I immediately began watering her and continued this process into December because I know that junipers can photosynthesize/transpire much longer than other trees. Instead of responding to this treatment in a positive way my tree continues to develop shriveled brown patches that I am still removing. I have just started watering her again (its early February) but just yesterday noticed that the tree in general just doesn’t look as healthy as she once did. Low flying planes hovered over this area last fall and now I am starting to wonder if my tree has been poisoned…
In closing I want to remind folks that it took 300 million years for trees to provide the earth with enough oxygen for us to breathe. And at present we are destroying the source of that oxygen at a catastrophic rate.