A terrible dilemma faces the Great Basin

By Stephen Trimble

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.

Toquima Range from Monitor Valley, Nevada, Steve Trimble photo

This column was published in the following newspapers:

01/16/2024 Sierra Nevada Ally Carson City NV
01/15/2024 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
01/16/2024 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
01/16/2024 Durango Herald Durango CO
01/16/2024 Cortez Journal Cortez CO
01/17/2024 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
01/17/2024 Vail Daily Vail CO
01/18/2024 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
01/17/2024 Craig Daily Press Craig co
01/18/2024 Taos News Taos NM
01/18/2024 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
01/22/2024 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
01/22/2024 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
01/22/2024 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
01/19/2024 Pueblo Chieftain Pueblo CO
01/18/2024 Denver Post Denver CO
01/16/2024 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
01/17/2024 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
01/20/2024 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
01/20/2024 Taos News Taos NM
01/23/2024 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
01/23/2024 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
01/22/2024 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
01/23/2024 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
01/24/2024 USA Today Mclean VA
01/24/2024 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
01/25/2024 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
01/25/2024 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
01/23/2024 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
01/17/2024 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
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Sally
1 month ago

We’ll be travelling this route in April visiting Great Basin NP. We’ll see for ourselves. Interesting article which reminds me of an old Pete Seeger song about messing with the environment.

Steve
1 month ago

The cheatgrass invasion of sagebrush stands seems to be practically intractable and irreversible? Especially at the extent it already exists in the Great Basin. I help manage a family ranch in southern Utah and have focused on reducing or eliminating noxious weeds from our property for the past 15 years with mixed results. After largely eliminating thistle over the past few years, we’re starting to see growing patches of cheatgrass on the property. Reducing grazing and resting pastures has helped but won’t eliminate the cheatgrass that’s already established. We’ll try mechanical treatments (plowing, mowing etc.) That’s a labor and equipment-expensive solution that may work for us but wouldn’t be practical to address the Basin-wide problem.

A Terrible Dilemma Faces the Great Basin — Writers on the Range #ActOnClimate – Coyote Gulch
1 month ago

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Gregory Gnesios
1 month ago

I am in complete agreement. As a BLM land manager, I tried mightily to eliminate grazing allotments in the National Conservation Area that I oversaw. Higher ups held these allotments sacred and forbid any tampering as the cheat grass continued to spread over Western Colorado. They talked a lot about “decadent sage” which, rather humorously, painted a picture of sunglass clad shrubs gamboling wildly over the landscape after dark. But I always felt that my hands were tied, even as I continued my mantra of “conservation is our middle name”, to no avail.

Matthew Koehler
1 month ago

Thanks to Stephen Trimble for this excellent column!

Incredibly, even federally protected Wilderness areas within the Great Basin are being over-run by private livestock. For example, 70 percent of ALL Wilderness acres in the state of Nevada are open to livestock grazing, while in Utah 51 percent of ALL Wilderness acres are open to livestock grazing.

You can help rein in the livestock damage being inflected on Wilderness!

Urge Congress to pass the Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Act.

https://wildernesswatch.salsalabs.org/vgpra_2024

Bill Lundeen
1 month ago

Great article, as always with Stephen Trimble. The apparent impossibility of balancing the needs of a complex world, when there are 8,000,000,000 greedy, hungry humans leading the charge and overpopulating the planet, feels overwhelming.

Ron
1 month ago

An excellent update from Trimble whom I admire. I think the Great Basin is one of the most beautiful places in the US, It deserves as much protection as we can give it. Invasive cheatgrass is a huge problem. It grows rapidly, dies to produce highly inflammable remains, and leaves seeds which survive the resulting fire that damages the native vegetation. I wonder if anyone has examined the possible use of some type of insect or pathogen to get rid of it.

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