A Terrible Dilemma Faces the Great Basin

A Terrible Dilemma Faces the Great Basin
Toquima Range from Monitor Valley, Nevada. / Photo by Steve Trimble

By Stephen Trimble, Writers on the Range

The long drive between Salt Lake City, Utah and Reno, Nevada on Interstate 80 feels endless, the landscape timeless. But these basins and ranges of the Great Basin Desert are changing dramatically.

Wildfire, climate change and aridification are transforming plant communities, while animals, including humans, try to figure out how to respond. Meanwhile, the dwindling Great Salt Lake risks becoming a toxic dust bowl.

Sagebrush now covers only half the territory it did before European settlers arrived with their livestock in the 1800s. Exotic annual grasses, including cheatgrass, have increased eightfold here since 1990, accelerating the fire cycle, outcompeting native plants and decreasing the available forage for grazers, wild and domestic.

I called this place “the sagebrush ocean” when I first wrote about it in the 1980s. Now, scientists mourn the loss of 1.3 million acres of healthy sagebrush each year, threatening animals that need sagebrush, like the Greater Sage Grouse and pygmy rabbit. Recent photographs of Nevada and Utah West Desert basins document a cheatgrass sea.

Researchers and federal lands staffers chant the management mantra for sagebrush ecosystems: “identify the core, protect the core, grow the core, mitigate impacts.”

But what is this dwindling core? Think intact ecosystems with abundant sagebrush and native understory, with minimal threats from invasive grasses, encroaching conifers or modification by people. Not much land fitting that description is left.

The core that’s left is rare and vulnerable. Although the Intermountain West is no longer the exclusive domain of the livestock industry, grazing continues to affect more acres than any other human use. Large expanses of sagebrush with grasses and wildflowers eaten down to nubs by cattle do not constitute “restoration.”

That is why land managers are hard put to save threatened animals that need sagebrush, like the greater sage grouse and pygmy rabbit.

But the dilemma is this: Saving sagebrush puts the aromatic shrublands at odds with piñon-juniper woodland—a landscape just as beloved, just as vital. Range ecologists believe that growing the sagebrush core means that half of the Great Basin woodlands need “treatment”—removing younger stands of trees while retaining old growth forest. Treatment means ripping the trees from the earth with a chain stretched between bulldozers or “masticating” trees to shreds.

A spree of “treatments” approved at the end of the Trump administration in 2020 opened millions of acres of woodland in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau to destruction. I happened upon one such project in the Kern Mountains of easternmost Nevada last summer, where a crew had been contracted to thin a dense woodland. The crew created a firebreak, but I felt I’d entered a war zone, with the scattered corpses of hundreds of trees littering newly cleared ground.

Before 1860, two-thirds of Great Basin landscapes in woodland habitat were treeless. Today, less than one-third is treeless, as trees decrease the acreage and vitality of sagebrush. But it’s unclear if sagebrush animals will repopulate cleared habitat anytime soon.

No more than half of tree treatments result in the regrowth of native grasses. Meanwhile, flocks of Pinyon Jays that depend on the trees suffer steep declines.

Here’s the rub: both sagebrush and woodland landscapes harbor incredible biodiversity. Piñon or sagebrush—which matters most? To sage grouse, pygmy rabbits and piñon mice? To backcountry recreationists, to cattlemen? To Indigenous Great Basin Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone people—citizens of what ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan calls “Piñon Nut Nation?”

When you live in a piñon-juniper woodland, you live with the trees, not under them. “Tree” usually means tall, vertical, but these trees often are round, comforting. I have enormous affection for the “p-j,” my home territory. Yet who doesn’t love the smell of sagebrush after a rain and cherish its native wildlife?

As sweeping change comes to the Great Basin, federal managers need to address causes, not symptoms. Their challenge is huge: to confront invading cheatgrass and junipers and reverse the decline of sagebrush, nut harvests, native grass and birds. All this, while ensuring that mule deer and cows flourish.

If we want to heal the land and restore the balance between sagebrush and woodland, we need to treat these landscapes as we would with those we love—using every bit of wisdom from both western and Indigenous traditions for the benefit of our collective future.

Stephen Trimble is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West, writersontherange.org. A 35th anniversary edition of his book, "The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin," will be published this year.

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