“Allowing large-scale logging of pinyon-juniper forests without consideration of the species, like the pinyon jay, that depend on them is irresponsible. We hope this settlement will encourage the Bureau of Land Management to take a careful look at the ecological consequences of logging before proceeding in the future.”
Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) have reached a court-approved settlement agreement requiring the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to abandon a decision authorizing extensive destruction of native pinyon pine and juniper habitats across the American West without requiring prior analysis and public disclosure of possible environmental impacts.
“Allowing large-scale logging of pinyon-juniper forests without consideration of the species, like the pinyon jay, that depend on them is irresponsible,” said Defenders of Wildlife's Senior Federal Lands Policy Analyst Vera Smith. “We hope this settlement will encourage the Bureau of Land Management to take a careful look at the ecological consequences of logging before proceeding in the future.”
“Pinyon pine and juniper forests are native ecosystems that have sustained humans, wildlife, and watersheds in arid environments for thousands of years. They provide food, habitat, and, we now know, immense benefits and resilience in the face of climate change,” said Kya Marienfeld, Wildlands Attorney with SUWA. “Allowing large-scale mechanical removal of these woodlands and the associated destruction of underlying fragile dryland soils without environmental analysis, scientific oversight, or public review is a recipe for disaster. Policies like this have no place in what is supposed to be open, transparent, and science-based management of public lands.”
The BLM adopted the so-called “Pinyon-Juniper Categorical Exclusion Rule” in December 2020 at the end of the Trump administration. The rule authorized extensive destruction of native pinyon pine and juniper by mechanical means — including cutting and masticating with heavy equipment — without environmental review. These projects could be up to 10,000 acres in size with no limit on the number of these projects the agency could approve.
"Pinyon-juniper woodlands provide important habitat for native and imperiled wildlife species such as the pinyon jay, mule deer, and others," said Todd Tucci, Senior Attorney at Advocates for the West, who represented conservation groups in the case. "The Pinyon-Juniper Categorical Exclusion Rule is a reckless environmental policy that gutted environmental analysis and public participation in decisions affecting our public lands."
Just this morning, the BLM and U.S. Forest Service released a nationwide report and inventory on mature and old-growth forests, following a yearlong effort to address these dwindling ecosystems on public lands and to kick off a rulemaking process focused on conserving this resource. The Mature and Old-Growth Forest Report demonstrates that pinyon-juniper woodlands are by far the forest type with the most remaining old growth, with nine million acres of old-growth pinyon-juniper on BLM and Forest Service lands, and an additional 14 million acres of mature pinyon-juniper woodlands.
While BLM’s purported need for the Pinyon-Juniper Categorical Exclusion Rule was to increase flexibility in restoring habitat for sage-grouse and mule deer, destruction of native pinyon-juniper habitats leads to the decline of other native species.
A 2023 article in Biological Conservation demonstrates the dangers of managing for one species over another by highlighting the adverse effects of pinyon-juniper cutting on the pinyon jay, which was recently petitioned by Defenders of Wildlife for listing under the Endangered Species Act. The pinyon jay already has experienced a significant population decline — estimated between 67% and 85% — since the late 1960s.
As a result of the settlement, the BLM must conduct an environmental review and seek public comment on pinyon-juniper deforestation projects. In doing so, the agency must consider how the project will affect native ecosystems, including evaluating how the projects will affect the viability of all at-risk plants and animals, sensitive soils, and the impacts of climate change.
"The bottom line is that pinyon-juniper systems are complicated and our understanding of how they are changing, especially with climate change, is very limited,” said Marienfeld. “Allowing indiscriminate logging of these systems could have serious implications and is simply not scientifically warranted.”
Fig. 1. Survey-wide population trajectories for the pinyon jay estimated from the Breeding Bird Survey (excerpted from pinyon jay petition).