The great New Mexican juniper massacre

  • A man stands next to a partially-poached Juniper tree.

    Michael Richie,
  • Estimated ages of trees based on Rocky Mountain juniper growth rates provided in the field office's draft resource management plan. Based on data from the BLM's Rio Puerco Field Office.

    Jonathan Thompson

385,000 years: That's the estimated collective age of old, live junipers illegally cut for firewood between July 2010 and November 2011 on Bureau of Land Management land in northern and central New Mexico. Hardest hit have been the surreally beautiful badlands west of the small town of Cuba, now stippled with freshly sawed tree stumps, some of which are hundreds of years old.

Thousands of locals -- mostly Navajos, Hispanics and Pueblo Indians, many of whom live in poverty -- use the region's piñon-juniper forests for cooking and heating, collecting dead trees with a permit. But green juniper is the firewood of choice in the region, and demand seems to have surged in recent years, perhaps due to economic hardships or rising propane prices. BLM officials have cracked down over the last year, hiring veterans to patrol the land, issuing citations, confiscating chainsaws, and opening a hotline to report illegal cutting. They're also trying to find ways to help locals lessen fuel needs through increased energy efficiency.

That has helped slow the killing, but the juniper poachers are creative and tenacious, says Rio Puerco Field Office Manager Tom Gow, and they have taken to doing their sawing at night to elude patrols. Still, he says, "We're going to catch them, it's just a matter of time."

Regional environmentalists, meanwhile, are pushing for stronger protections for the badlands. The Rio Puerco BLM Field Office's new draft of its resource management plan is now open to public comment.

Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Sep 22, 2012 10:48 AM
The latest twist in the war on junipers. Now 'land managers' in New Mexico have discovered that these beautiful trees are an ancient, integral part of the landscape. Forty years ago in northern Arizona the BLM was PAYING ranchers to remove ancient junipers by dragging chains across the landscape between graders. The theory was that the junipers were selfishly using too much water, water that could otherwise nourish grass for livestock. Total BS of course. The junipers actually stabilized the soil and INCREASED soil moisture. But no matter. That area today looks like the Sahel, utterly dead, no grass, no cattle, nothing. Score another one for the clueless ranchers and their political cronies. I'm always amazed when I see people that have lived for generations on a landscape, loudly proclaim themselves to be the stewards of that landscape, yet then do things to that landscape that have the ultimate effect of driving them and their families off of that cherished land forever. Fast forward to Central Oregon-the Bend Bulletin recently ran a piece that claimed junipers were an invasive species that out-compete native grass for water. The Bulletin claimed a mature juniper soaks up 40 gallons a day and dessicates the soil, and that it is practically a civic duty to cut as much juniper as possible to save the land from drought. Total BS, but really bad ideas in range management seem to be practically immortal.
Tom Fitch
Tom Fitch Subscriber
Sep 25, 2012 02:20 PM
Two years ago I was driving to Phoenix from Fort Collins and when I hit the western side of Albuquerque, I could not believe the pall of blue smoke trapped up against the mountains. It really got my attention and I could not figure out what had gone so wrong. When I hit Phoenix, I mentioned this to my buddy and he said that it was wood smoke - that many of the people there heat and cook with wood. Couldn't believe it - I would NOT want to be in the middle of that breathing that air.
Evan Ravitz
Evan Ravitz
Sep 25, 2012 04:35 PM
The longterm solution is to get people to use the free solar heat which is hugely abundant in NM. I ran the Taos office of the NM Solar Energy Assoc. in 1978. Even back then, 120 homes (2% of all homes in the county) were at least partly solar heated. Probably 10% of those were 90% solar heated or better. Here's my article from then, on the front page of the High Country News:
Patrick Hunter
Patrick Hunter
Nov 04, 2012 09:41 AM
Every human being starts life about as dumb as a rock. Society's challenge is to guide each person to some level of understanding of the world that allows for survival, and then some. At 7 billion world population we have failed. The ecosystems that sustain us are in an accelerating decline. Sayonara.