The BLM project is in an isolated area west of Comb Wash and known as Little Baullie Mesa. The area is home to a large number of Anasazi ruins.
For most people in arid southeastern Utah, a stand of pinyon and juniper trees looks like a good thing. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving.
Growing where they don’t belong, like they were on Little Baullie Mesa, about 15 miles west of Blanding, dense pinyon and juniper woodlands displace existing native plant communities, create the potential for high intensity wildfires, reduce wildlife forage and habitat and increase soil loss due to erosion.
In 2009, the Canyon Country Fire Zone, working with the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative, took action to improve the unhealthy environment on Little Baullie Mesa.
Before the treatment began, a visitor to Little Baullie Mesa would have seen a vast expanse of pinyon and juniper woodlands as well as dead jumbled logs from a 1960’s era chaining.
The unnatural and overly dense pinyon juniper woodlands were bad for the ecosystem’s health and were a fire hazard. Over the past decade, thousands of acres on mesas in the area burned intensely.
These intense fires have been extremely dangerous to firefighters and have caused extensive resource damage. BLM personnel thinned the dense pinyon and juniper trees with equipment designed to “masticate,” or chip, the trees and then reseeded the area with native grasses.
Their goals were to decrease potential resource damage from wildfires, improve the diversity and abundance of wildlife habitat and forage, reduce heavy dead woody debris from 1960’s era chaining and protect cultural resources.
Healthy plant communities in our desert ecosystems are diverse. When pinyon and juniper dominate the environment, other native vegetation, such as native grasses, forbs and shrubs, is choked out.
This loss of diversity enables wind and rain to carry away soil and its nutrients, further damaging ecosystem health, degrading wildlife habitat and placing cultural resources at risk.
Mastication has proven to be a very effective treatment. After mastication the landscape may look disturbed for a few years as new grasses, forbs and shrubs grow back. Within several years, new growth helps the area return to a more vibrant, natural vegetative community that represents the historic ecological condition of the landscape.
These treatments are also easier on biological soils and cultural resources than older treatment methods such as chaining. Recent studies by universities in Utah and Colorado have validated the effectiveness of similar fuel restoration projects and the results have been impressive.
Fuel treatments increase firefighter safety in the event of a fire by providing open space that can be used as safety zones. They also provide tactical advantages during wildfire suppression.
Wildfires that rage through pinyon and juniper trees drop to the ground when they enter a treatment area, which makes it easier for fire crews to safely extinguish them.
In Utah, fuels treatments have been effective in reducing the negative consequences of wildfires. When fires burn into fuels projects, their intensity is reduced, and the vegetation recovers faster than on adjacent, non-treated land.
For more information on fuel reduction and restoration projects go to www.utahfireinfo.gov.