Pinyon-juniper ecosystems cover 36 million acres scattered across Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. Pinyon trees exist in association with more than 1000 species of plants, insects, birds, and mammals, and perform important ecosystem services, such as water and soil retention.
For ten thousand years, human inhabitants in the Southwest also relied on pinyon trees, primarily for sustenance, shade, firewood, and building materials. To this day, pinyon trees are sacred among the regions indigenous cultures, and pine nuts, the seeds of pinyon trees, are highly prized among Native American and Hispano residents for their flavor and nutritional value.
Commerce in pine nuts is an old tradition in the Southwest, dating back at least a thousand years, and linking peoples of the Great Basin, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Plains. As late as the 1930s, trading posts shipped millions of pounds of pine nuts each year from Southwestern forests to markets in New York City and Los Angeles.
Over the past 50 years, however, the flow of pine nuts from the Southwests forests has dwindled to a trickle. Much of this decline is directly linked to a century of unsustainable public land management policies. For much of the 20th century, rangeland ecologists treated pinyon trees as weeds and recommended converting wooded savannas in many parts of the Southwest to grasslands stocked with non-native grasses. By the late 1980s, the combination of wide-scale clearing, excessive grazing, and fire suppression had created a landscape covered with fire-prone dense pinyon thickets.
Land management approaches that encourage the restoration of healthy pinyon groves instead of eliminating them are badly needed. One promising alternative is to reverse the current management priorities and manage pinyon-juniper ecosystems primarily for nut production, and only secondarily for grazing, timber, and mining. Such an approach would benefit the land, water, and wildlife; it would also decrease the risk of catastrophic wildfire and provide a reliable supply of highly nutritious nuts, and increase the economic viability of the local pine nut industry. With funding from the Colorado Wood Utilization and Marketing Program, in 2007 the Institute for Culture and Ecology initiated a pilot project aimed at building the capacity of Southwestern communities and land management agencies to manage pinyon-juniper ecosystems as nut groves. In this phase we are establishing an interactive website (www.pinonnuts.org) where harvesters, buyers, land managers, and scientists can share information about pinyon nut crop locations and yields, permit prices and harvesting restrictions, pinyon nut prices, and methods for improving pinyon nut production.
Penny Frazier, owner of Goods from the Woods, and long-time advocate for sustainable management of pinyon-juniper ecosystems, was the inspiration for the project and is coordinating the development of the website. The Institute for Culture and Ecology has produced several educational tools highlighting the many benefits of pinyon trees, including an overview of the pine nut industry, guidelines for managing pinyon-juniper forests for nut production, and a scientific poster on pinyon management. These materials are available at: http://www.pinonnuts.org/