PJ Forests

PJ Forests: Pinyon-juniper forest mixed with shrubs, cacti, and sage blanketing the mesa. Courtesy US National Parks Service, Austin Tumas, Photographer
Pinyon-juniper forest mixed with shrubs, cacti, and sage blanketing the mesa top
Courtesy US National Parks Service,
Austin Tumas, Photographer
As I write this, I’m babysitting grandkids in Cedar City. I find relief from the little rascals by
handing them off to grandma while I retreat to surrounding pinyon-juniper forests, affectionally titled PJ forests.

Bird calls instantly transform my thoughts to these pygmy forest’s abundant offerings- muffled laughing calls of pinyon jays, twittering of juniper titmice, raucous scrub jays. Drawn by
swooping ravens, I approach a juniper overlooking the canyon below. Thirty feet away, an immature golden eagle sits on a Juniper branch expressing its displeasure by twisting a gold-
mantled head to face the marauders with fierce eyes.

Further up the trail, five mule deer dart though the shadows. A black tailed jackrabbit bolting from its sage hideout startles me. Wishing for binoculars, a flock of sparrow-sized birds fly
across. I attempt to imagine them as juncos, without success. Tomorrow I will return with optics in hand to solve the mystery.

Pinyon Juniper are the dominant forest type in Utah. Much like the sage Steppe biotic community, at first glance one is deluded by the apparent lifeless monotony of this landscape.
To the contrary, both have a high biodiversity. These forests have around 450 species of vascular plants living alongside pinyon pines and junipers. Additionally, over 150 vertebrate
species of animals including elk, mule deer, and bear call pinyon-juniper forests home either seasonally or throughout the year.

Junipers are a birders paradise. The trees offer sites for perching, singing, nesting, and drumming. They also yield plentiful berries (actually spherical cones) and house a high insect
diversity for birds to consume. Mammals also eat the berries while seeking shelter in hollow juniper trunks, taking advantage of the trees’ shade in hot temperatures and the trees’ thermal
cover in the cold. Pinyon pines offer similar benefits to forest-dwellers. Pinyon mice, Abert’s squirrels, cliff chipmunks, Uinta chipmunks, wood rats, desert bighorn sheep, and black bears
all eat pinyon pine nuts.

For millennia, our own species have been dependent on the pinyon pine for their variable bounty of highly nourishing pine nuts. A staple of the Paiute, Goshute, Ute, and Shoshone, their
lives revolved around the fall harvest with elaborate ceremonies to pay homage for their life sustaining food value. It continues to the present, and we Euromericans have joined them in fall
harvest here in the Intermountain west, including my children and grandchildren.

Like the sage steppe, the pinyon juniper forest has been misunderstood, and under-appreciated for its critical role in the lives of so many species that would not exist without it, nor would
atmospheric carbon be stored in their fiber and their soils. Chaining and other “treatments” are highly controversial given the aesthetic impact of once vibrant forest replaced with piles of
uprooted trees and torn soils. Compounding this, recent decades have witnessed more severe drought and heat events making them vulnerable to insect and disease attacks, and catastrophic fire. We must practice utmost care in how we manage this priceless resource.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society, loving wild Utah and its PJ forests

This is Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society, loving wild Utah and its PJ forests!

Pictures: Courtesy US National Parks Service, Austin Tumas, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections as well as J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin, https://upr.org/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands – Introduction & Distribution, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/articles/pinyon-juniper-woodlands-distribution.htm

Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands – Species Composition and Classification, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/articles/pinyon-juniper-woodlands-species-composition-classification.htm

Tausch, R.J., Miller, R.F., Roundy, B.A., and Chambers, J.C., 2009, Piñon and juniper field guide: Asking the right questions to select appropriate management actions: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1335, 96 p., https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/1335/circ1335.pdf

Plants, Natural Bridges National Monument, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/nabr/learn/nature/plants.htm

Noah’s Ark Trail, Dixie National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/dixie/recarea/?recid=24930

Utah’s Conifer Trees

Juniper Leaves & Cones
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Two-needle Pinion Pine
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Norway Spruce Cones
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

True Fir Needles
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Douglas Fir Cones
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Now that the leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees, we can fully appreciate Utah’s evergreen trees. Conifers are trees that bear their seeds in cones instead of producing flowers and fruits. Utah has five kinds of conifers; all with stiff, needle-like leaves that remain green throughout the winter. Traits of their needles and cones allow you to distinguish between our different types of conifers. Cones can be found still attached or scattered on the ground.

I will start with the junipers. These conifers have scaly, slightly fleshly leaves. Juniper seeds are embedded in a cone that resembles a green berry. The cones are round and densely fleshy. Junipers are widely adaptable here, from arid foothills to rocky alpine slopes.

Our pines collectively span this same elevation range. They are the only conifers that have cylindrical needles bundled in clusters of 2 to 5. The one exception to this is Single Leaf Pinon, which as you might guess has single, round needles. The count of pine needles is often diagnostic of their species. Pinons mix with junipers at low elevations; their oily, wingless seeds are the edible pinon nut. Bristlecone pines, found in southern Utah, can live for over 1000 years.

Spruces are conifers that many recognize from their own yards. The spruce needle leaves a peg on the stem when it drops, which gives their twigs a rough, nubbly surface. Spruces grow in a classic pyramidal shape.

Another montane group is the true firs. Their flat needle attaches smoothly to the twig. True firs have uniquely upright cones that gradually disintegrate without dropping to the ground. Crushed fir needles are wonderfully fragrant, redolent of tangerines or grapefruit. Perhaps that is why true firs are a favorite Christmas tree.

Douglas fir, despite its common name, is in a different genus than the true firs. Its cones are distinctive; having long, three-pointed, papery bracts that project out from amid the cone’s scales. Douglas fir is one of the west’s most valuable timber tress. Like the spruces and firs, it is a montane species.

Conifer trees are a great resource for Utah wildlife, providing food and shelter, especially in the icy cold of winter.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Pictures: Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin
Text: Linda Kervin and Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

Sibley, David Allen. 2009. The Sibley Guide to Trees. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Johnson, Carl M. 1991. Common Native Trees of Utah. Utah State University Extension Service. Logan, UT. 109 p

Kuhns, Michael R., Utah Forest Facts, Conifers for Utah, https://extension.usu.edu/forestry/Reading/Assets/PDFDocs/NR_FF/NRFF015.pdf, USU Extension

Utah’s Recent Pinyon Migrations and the Prospects for Climate Change

Utah’s Recent Pinyon Migrations and the Prospects for Climate Change
Packrat Fossil Midden
City of Rocks
Copyright © 2009 Julio Betancourt

In the late 1970’s, springtime in the American West warmed abruptly by 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the valleys, double that higher up. Our average onset of Spring now comes a week earlier across the West. If these are the first signs of climate change, even longer growing seasons will trigger not just earlier blooms but also northward plant migrations.

The past provides us with lessons about plant migrations. A thousand years ago, one-needle pinyon hopped from the Raft River Mountains in Utah to City of Rocks, Idaho. Across Utah, two-needle pinyon leaped over the Uintas to Flaming Gorge. We know this from radiocarbon dates on pinyon pine needles taken from ancient nest heaps of packrats preserved in caves. According to Dr. Julio Betancourt of the U.S. Geological Survey, who uses these packrat middens and tree rings to reveal past plant migrations, these recent advances by Utah’s two pinyon pines followed the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a period from 900 to 1300 AD marked by warming in Europe and severe drought in Utah.

Utah’s Recent Pinyon Migrations and the Prospects for Climate Change
Packrat 7000 year old Midden
Joshua Tree Natl Park
Copyright © 2009 Julio Betancourt

Droughts figure prominently in Dr. Betancourt’s view of tree migrations. Droughts trigger bark beetle infestations, wildfires, and tree dieoffs, opening up niches for regeneration. When the drought abates, the resident tree species typically return. With long-term warming, however, other species can move in from lower elevations or further south. Dead trees now abound on Utah’s landscape, and Dr. Betancourt thinks that we are on the verge of a new spate of tree migrations.

This go around, which species retreat or advance will depend on new factors, including human fragmentation of the landscape and accelerated dispersal of native and non-native species that hitch rides with us. To conserve ecological goods and services associated with some species, Dr. Betancourt argues, we will have to manage for these plant migrations.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Photo: Courtesy and © Copyright 2009 Julio Betancourt

Text: Julio Betancourt USGS NRP Tucson: Biotic Response to Climate Variability
Faculty and Staff > Julio Betancourt

Additional Reading:

USGS National Research Program: Tucson AZ

Climate Change and the Great Basin, Jeanne C. Chambers, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Reno, NV, 2008,

A Database of Paleoecological Records from Neotoma Middens in Western North America, USGS/NOAA North American Packrat Midden Database, https://esp.cr.usgs.gov/data/midden/ (Accessed 27 August 2009)