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Pinon pine and fire ecology

By Penny Frazier
    Goods From The Woods

Singleleaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla), also called pinyon is a slow-growing, that grows on dry, low mountain slopes of the Great Basin.8

Singleleaf pinyon is one of the slowest growing conifers. It usually requires about 60 years to attain a height of 2 m (6.6 ft). 8 Generally, singleleaf pinyon trees do not begin bearing cones before they are 35 years old and do not begin producing good seed crops earlier than 100 years. Pinyon depends upon a standing crop of seedlings for species perpetuation. Seedlings require a nurse crop; thus, most seedlings are found under shrubs in mid succession and under the tree crown in late succession.8

Singleleaf pinyon trees more than 300 years old are fairly common on poor sites but rare on good sites. It appears that all the better sites were either burned in the past 300 years or have been cut over in the past century or so.8

The poorer sites are virtually fireproof because their sparse vegetation will not carry fire, and these sites were not cut because of the small size and poor form of their trees. 8

Singleleaf pinyon communities does not carry fire well, and fire return intervals of several hundred years are considered typical [9,10]. For example, singleleaf pinyon communities in the San Bernardino Mountains have experienced long-interval stand-replacement fires both before and during suppression with an estimated fire interval of 450 years, resulting in a mosaic of small scattered patches within uniform old-growth stands across the landscape [11,12]

Burning in pinyon-juniper woodlands requires at least 600 to 700 lb/acre of
fine fuel [11]. In the absence of fire and the presence of grazing, tree densities have increased and undergrowth is so sparse in many areas that surface fuels do not support fire [12,13,14,15,16]

. Susceptibility to fire depends on the stage of development of the pinyon stand. In young stands, enough shrubby and herbaceous vegetation often exists to carry fire over extensive areas. As the stand develops, understory vegetation becomes too sparse to carry fire, and the trees generally are too widely spaced to carry a crown fire except with the aid of extremely high winds (8). Thus, fire is ordinarily confined to younger stands and to a few individual lightning-struck trees in older stands.

In short, fire suppression efforts over the period of 30 -40 years have had a minimal impact on the pinyon forests. However, massive vegetation conversion projects, prescribed burning, rangeland improvement projects have radically altered the region, as grassland development for cattle grazing has been the primary focus of land managers in the Western United States and the Nevada District as a whole. The fine fuel load of grasses, in particularly cheatgrass is the true cause of the catastrophic wild fire problem in Nevada.

Due the massive vegetation conversion projects, rangeland improvement projects, prescribed burning and other public land management action the Ely BLM district, the ability commercially harvest pinyon pinenuts has greatly diminished and is at risk. As a result of poor stewardship, and continuing violations of duty to manage the pinyon forested lands, in a way that reflects the principles of multiple use and sustained yield, people who utilize pinyon nut as a food source have been damaged.

It takes up to 150 years for the pinyon to become a mature nut producing tree. Given the time needed to replace mature pinyon, the action represent imminent danger to the mature, nut producing trees and the stay should remain in place. Should these projects proceed, remaining mature seed/nut bearing pinyon in would be jeopardized.

Remaining stands are immediately susceptible to the "cheatgrass-wildfire cycle", described by Director Abbey. The breaks in the pinyon canopy create a fire "walk-way" or chimney, littered with fine flash fuel between stands of trees. Hence, sequence of catostropic fire , deforestation, grassland sucession, cheat-grass infestation perpetuating the creation of flash fuel, intensifing the cycle.

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Another Issue in Western Wildfire

by Penny Frazier
     Goods From The Woods

        It is well understood by Fire Professionals that the amount of "green moisture" in any given area is the indicator of how susceptible the area is to fire. Dead vegetation, such as grasses, and certain invasive weeds, such as cheat grass(Bromus tectorum) are extremely combustible, and represent the primary source of catastrophic fire.

 As explained to the United States Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, by BLM State Director, Nevada Robert V. Abbey," We found that a fire cycle had developed, referred to in recent science reports as the ‘cheatgrass-wildfire cycle.’ This problem is acute in Nevada, where the cycle of fire disturbance has spurred the invasive cheat grass to alter range and wildlife habitats." Statement of Robert V. Abbey, State Director, Nevada Bureau of Land Management Before the United States Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Concerning Nevada Wildlife Conservation Initiatives April 10, 2001

Cheatgrass is an annual grass and is able to complete its lifecycle in the spring before the summer dry weather begins. Its complete drying and fine structure make it extremely flammable. Frequent fires actually favor cheatgrass by eliminating competing perennial vegetation. Its seeds survive in the unburned organic material on a site. Rapid growth and vigorous reproduction assure cheatgrass dominance in the postburn stand.2 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (2001, October). Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. Available: SPECIES: Bromus tectorum

Cheatgrass dries 4 to 6 weeks earlier than other grasses and is susceptible to fire 1 to 2 months longer in the fall .Because cheatgrass dies off early in the summer, it becomes fine "flash fuel. Because of its flammability, cheatgrass greatly increases the fire hazard on a site. The rate of spread, size, and frequency of fire all increase. In Oregon, cheatgrass ranges were found to be 500 times more likely to burn than noncheatgrass ranges. A forest stand with a cheatgrass understory may suffer loss of regeneration because of frequent burning. Cheatgrass fires spread very rapidly and may extend into nearby stands of native vegetation and reduce the cover of valuable perennial species.3

BLM Press release warning of high fire danger for the summer of 2001 said," During the 1999 and 2000 fire season, the chief culprit has been thick, dried mats of cheatgrass." 4 Other researchers similarly examining the cause of catastrophic Western wild fires, question what is burning, likewise concluding that grassland represent the risk, rather than forested acreage. For example, in reviewing the data from the 2001 fire seasons, Pacific Biodiversity Institute found the largest fires (over 50,000 acres in size) have burned primarily on BLM, tribal and private land. These fires burned primarily in grasslands, shrublands, or other non-forested areas. (see exhibits 1 analysis of major Nevada Fires 2001).

In short, the scientific evidence as verbalized to Congress, by Nevada District Head, Robert Abbey is telling us, Cheatgrass is the major problem in the Nevada wild fire scenarios.

Yet, these plans completely fail to consider that information, and only contain the most cursory information about cheat grass. The plans include nearly identical Risk Assessment for Noxious Weeds , noting that the area had not been surveyed completely for noxious weeds, rating the project a low 2 risk for the likelihood of noxious weeds spreading into the project area. In fact, only approximately 4 percent of the land area in the landscape has been surveyed. Noxious weed inventories in the WWPL have been principally limited to existing roadways with a few isolated rangeland sites throughout the landscape.5Western White Pine Landscape Herbicide Application Environmental Assessment, Ely Field Office, Bureau of Land Management NV-040-01-042 May 2001).
  Also See:  High
 FEATURE ARTICLE - May 22, 2000
Fire and cheatgrass conspire to create a weedy wasteland


The Ely Herbicide EA properly notes: many areas continue to be depressed and susceptible to noxious weed and invasive species establishment (5 page 12, .pdf). Yet, The Mt. Wilson and Ely Urban Interface projects assess the overall risk as very low. This low risk assessment fails in all respects to meet the standard of scientific and professional integrity.

The Western United States has had catastrophic fires over the last 8 years. Historically, the problem catastrophic fire has been attributed to increased fuels, resulting from fire suppression policies developed in the early 1970’s. Congress has allocated huge sums of money toward proactive fire control, of which the Ely Nevada District received 10 Million Dollars.6Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition Research Committee Meeting Executive Summary of August 14, 2001.Exhibit 6, Statement of Reasons Committee for Idaho High Desert, Western Watersheds Project and American Land Alliance, IBLA-2001, )

The Ely Nevada District fire management plans seek to generate money for the district under the aspics of fuel reduction projects, targeting pinyon pines trees p.monophylla. Concomitantly, the District has ignored the finding recent studies of what is burning, and why. In short, the plans before the Board represent a perpetuation of the problem, rather than a solution.

These plans even fail to account for the consequences of spreading tons of wood chips about the desert. For example, what will these wood chips do, when washed away by the Ely Floods (see, ROD), will the volatile in the wood change the water quality, or stream course? The plans fail to consider, that litter and rough microtopography aid the establishment of cheatgrass by providing moderated temperatures and humidities for seeds. 7. Young, James A.; Evans, Raymond A.; Weaver, Ronald A. 1976. Estimating potential downy brome competition after wildfires. Journal of Range Management. 29(4): 322-325.

Thinning projects, such as these proposed actions have questionable value in the fight against catastrophic wild fire. Studies that show or suggest an increase in fire extent or intensity after thinning include: Fahnestock, G.R. 1968. Fire hazard from precommercial thinning of ponderosa pine. U.S. Forest Service Research Paper PNW-57. Portland, Oregon; Weatherspoon, C.P. and C.N. Skinner. 1995. An assessment of factors associated with damage to tree crowns from the 1987 wildfire in northern California. Forest Science. 41:430-451; Huff, M.H., R.D. Ottmar, E. Alvarado, R.E. Vihnanek, J.F. Lehmkuhl, P.F. Hessburg, and R.L. Everett. 1995. Historical and current landscapes in eastern Oregon and Washington. Part II: linking vegetation characteristics to potential fire behavior and related smoke production. U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Forest and Range Experiment Station, GTR- 355. Portland, Oregon; U.S. Forest Service. 1995. Initial review of silvicultural treatments and fire effects on Tree fire. Appendix A, Environmental Assessment for the Bear-Potato Analysis Area of the Tyee Fire, Chelan and Entiat Ranger Districts, Wenatchee National Forest, Wenatchee, WA. .

These projects represent a continuing pattern of misguide resource management, as range managers attempt to create more range from forested lands. This assault on the pinyon pine forest is part of the a consorted effort on behalf of the ELY BLM office to destroy pinyon trees, regardless of the context of the plan’s purpose, vegetation conversion, fuel reduction, rangeland improvement or urban interface. The plans are part of a pattern of abuse of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA), 43 U.S.C. secs. 1701-1784. The Ely BLM must manage its lands under principles of multiple use and sustained yield in accordance with land use plans developed by the agency. 43 U.S.C. secs. 1701(a)(7), 1732(a). BLM has failed to inventory all of its lands and develop land use plans, that among other things: reflect the principles of multiple use and sustained yield; take a multidisciplinary approach involving physical, biological, economical, and other sciences; consider present and future uses; 43 U.S.C. sec. 1712(c).

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Other pages on this site:
The beginning of my record of correspondence with the BLM

This is one letter documenting the lack of correspondence over pine nut  issues raised over the years, and the lack of response.
More information to the BLM about pine nuts
Legal Action regarding a plan to chip 30,000 acres of pinyon and leave the wood chips in the hot desert sun, in the name of fuel reduction
What people should know about Western Wildfire - life cycle of pinon pine nut producing tree
radionuclides and pine nuts
Pine Nuts and Politics - Our first page and efforts