Pinyon-juniper woodlands

General Technical Report RM-GTR-268-6
By: , and 
Edited by: Deborah M. Finch and Joseph A. Tainter



Pinyon-juniper woodlands are one of the largest ecosystems in the Southwest and in the Middle Rio Grande Basin (Fig. 1). The woodlands have been important to the region's inhabitants since prehistoric times for a variety of natural resources and amenities. The ecosystems have not been static; their distributions, stand characteristics, and site conditions have been altered by changes in climatic patterns and human use and, often, abuse. Management of these lands since European settlement has varied from light exploitation and benign neglect, to attempts to remove the trees in favor of forage for livestock, and then to a realization that these lands contain useful resources and should be managed accordingly.

Land management agencies are committed to ecosystem management. While there are several definitions of ecosystem management, the goal is to use ecological approaches to create and maintain diverse, productive, and healthy ecosystems (Kaufmann et al. 1994). Ecosystem management recognizes that people are an integral part of the system and that their needs must be considered. Ecological approaches are central to the concept, but our understanding of basic woodland ecology is incomplete, and there are different opinions and interpretations of existing information (Gottfried and Severson 1993). There are many questions concerning proper ecosystem management of the pinyon-juniper woodlands and how managers can achieve these goals (Gottfried and Severson 1993). While the broad concept of ecosystem management generally is accepted, the USDA Forest Service, other public land management agencies, American Indian tribes, and private landowners may have differing definitions of what constitutes desired conditions.

Key questions about the pinyon-juniper ecosystems remain unanswered. Some concern the basic dynamics of biological and physical components of the pinyon-juniper ecosystems. Others concern the distribution of woodlands prior to European settlement and changes since the introduction of livestock and fire control. This relates to whether tree densities have been increasing or whether trees are invading grasslands and, to a lesser extent, drier ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) forests. In areas where woodlands were heavily used by American Indians for fuelwood prior to European contact, the advance of pinyon and juniper could represent the slow recovery from intensive use (Samuels and Betancourt 1982). There are numerous questions regarding declines in watershed condition related to changes in pinyon-juniper tree stand densities and to the density and composition of understory vegetation. There are different opinions about proper management of woodland ecosystems. Should these lands be managed for a single resource, such as forage for livestock production, or managed for sustained production of multiple resource products and amenities? Depending on site and stand conditions, the woodlands can produce variable quantities of fuelwood, pinyon nuts, wildlife habitat, forage for livestock, and cover for watershed protection. Management must also consider increasing recreational demands, threatened and endangered species, and protection of archeological sites. Many pinyon-juniper woodland watersheds in New Mexico have unsatisfactory soil and watershed conditions (USDA Forest Service 1993); managers must develop restoration procedures that recognize the value of woodland ecosystems. 

The concerns, questions, and conflicts surrounding management of pinyon-juniper lands, as well as the ecological foundations of ecosystem management, require that all interested parties reevaluate attitudes toward the woodlands. Ecosystem management goals and concepts recognize diversity. Pinyonjuniper woodlands are diverse, and stand characteristics and site productivities vary. Management objectives and prescriptions must evaluate the potential of each site, and decisions must be based on sound scientific information. This information is often unavailable. Therefore, this paper describes what we do know about the characteristics, distribution, and ecology of pinyon-juniper woodlands, including the effects of natural and human factors, within the southwestern United States and particularly the Middle Rio Grande Basin. It also reviews some past and present management options in this widespread and important vegetation type. The review draws on research and management information from the Rio Grande Basin and from similar areas in the Southwest and adjacent regions. It does not attempt to review all of the relevant literature; additional sources can be found within the articles cited in the References. 

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Pinyon-juniper woodlands
Series title General Technical Report
Series number RM-GTR-268
Chapter 6
Year Published 1995
Language English
Publisher U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station
Publisher location Fort Collins, CO
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description 138 p.
Larger Work Type Report
Larger Work Subtype Federal Government Series
Larger Work Title Ecology, diversity, and sustainability of the Middle Rio Grande Basin
First page 95
Last page 132
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