Sudden Death in the Southwest

By Lantz, Gary | American Forests, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

Sudden Death in the Southwest


Lantz, Gary, American Forests


WILL INSECTS, RECORD HEAT, AND DROUGHT SPELL AN END TO LANDMARK PINYON PINE?

Paint a picture of the American Southwest and certain colors seem essential. Ultramarine blue for skies that tend to stay sunlight drenched, a khaki tan for adobe earth and architecture, dark green for a fragrant forest so typically Southwestern-the junipers and pinyon pines that separate grassland, sagebrush and desert from high country forest of ponderosa and fir.

Especially in the Four Corners region of Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, pinyon/juniper forest appears to be the definitive landscape, or at least one often featured in travel brochures. The aroma from the woodland conjures images of small Hispanic villages, Indian pueblos, rugged red buttes and mesas, salsa and pinto beans. Or did, before the pinyon trees experienced a startling weather- and insect-induced assault, during what some researchers have called the Southwest's "perfect storm."

When this dryland storm ended, as much as 90 percent of pinyon trees were either dead or on the verge. Researchers estimate the kill at nearly 2.5 million acres, an ecological event of catastrophic proportions. Some scientists, accessing the results of this climatic "death spiral," believe the southwestern United States witnessed its first regional-scale environmental disaster associated with temperature extremes linked to global warming.

The drought and consequent die-off of pinyons was documented by researchers on the ground and even from space, as satellite photographs recorded the transition of vast landscapes from green to brown. Drought in the Southwest is a matter of fact, and the characteristic flora and fauna of the region are well adapted. Records show that extreme drought during the mid-20th century resulted in a patchy loss of pinyon forest, but nothing to equal the scale witnessed during the latest dry spell.

The species bearing the brunt of this plague of dry weather exacerbated by an outbreak of bark beetles was Pinus edulis-the Colorado pinyon, twoleafed pinyon, or two-needle pinyon-the most common pinyon pine of the Four Corners area. It's a tree accustomed to the Southwest's weather moods, getting by on as little as 10 inches of rainfall at lower elevations or soaking up as many as 22 inches annually at the extremes of its upper range.

Some estimates place the pinyon/juniper forest cover at approximately 37 million acres overall, now minus the amount exterminated during the drought. Generally the Colorado pinyon is associated with Juniperus monosperma or one-seed juniper, another tree well adapted to the Southwest's periodic dry spells. Together they occupy mostly rugged country, generally rocky plateaus, mesas, and lower slopes of mountains. Pinyon/ juniper forest comprises a transitional ecotone, occurring between desert grassland or sagebrush steppe and the Ponderosa pine/Douglas-fir of higher, wetter, cooler elevations.

Pinyons are slow growing, maturing at 75-200 years. Larger trees in a stand often approach 400 years old and may obtain a height of 50 feet or more, with some of these southwestern specialists on record as reaching truly old age at up to 1,000 years. Usually though, a pinyon/juniper stand is made up of trees closer to the average of 18 inches in diameter and maybe 35 feet tall.

Donald Culross Peattie, in his 1950 classic A Natural History of Western Trees, wrote "When the traveler from the East first looks out of the train window upon the sun baked hillsides of New Mexico, he sees a landscape of turquoise blue sky, silvery glint of snow-capped far off ranges, red, desert earth molded into conical hills and hundreds of crooked little pine trees. These are pinyons, the state tree of New Mexico, and the hundreds soon become thousands and, after a few hours, the traveler realizes they are reckoned by the millions."

What Peattie's travelers might have missed as they sped past was the pinyon's not-so-obvious genetic treasure: the universally acclaimed pinyon or pine nut, a gourmet morsel to both man and beast, praised for nutritional values, health benefits, and flavor, centerpiece of a multi-million dollar industry and vital fare for a variety of wildlife. …

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