Seeing the forest for its dead trees

by Gail Binkly

Until piñon pines began dying by the millions across the Southwest a few years ago — victims of drought and voracious bark beetles — few people gave much thought to the gnarled, scrubby trees or the delicate ecosystem that supported them. Even now, attention is focused on the piñons mainly as a wildfire hazard rather than as an integral part of a unique and complex landscape.

Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country, edited by M. Lisa Floyd, is devoted to challenging that view. With chapters by 23 different scientists and researchers, this intelligent, detailed book offers plenty of reasons to appreciate old-growth piñon-juniper forests such as those within Mesa Verde National Park. They support a rich variety of flora and fauna, including 10 species of amphibian, 26 reptiles, more than 70 mammals, more than 113 birds, over 100 types of fungi and 14,000 to 26,000 insect species. Indigenous tribes depended heavily on the trees, using the wood for fuel and construction, and piñon seeds and juniper berries for food. Yet while there are preserves for Joshua trees, saguaro and organ-pipe cacti, and tall-grass prairies, few people accord piñon-juniper the same status.

As a result, this arid ecosystem is increasingly fragmented and degraded. Across the West, between 1950 and 1964, almost 3 million acres of piñon-juniper were cleared, usually by dragging a huge chain between two bulldozers, and converted to pasture. Recently, the catastrophic bark beetle invasion, disturbingly frequent wildfires, and booming residential growth have taken a toll, while air pollution, noxious weeds and global climate change pose more insidious threats.

The authors suggest a public-relations campaign to improve the image of "one of the Southwest’s true natives," a type of forest so widespread and familiar that the region would be unimaginable without it. Proceeds from the book’s sale will be devoted to further research into piñon-juniper ecology.

Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country
M. Lisa Floyd
426 pages, softcover $29.95.
University of Colorado Press, 2003.

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