There will likely be few, if any, "chainings" of Utah's pinyon-juniper forests in the near future.
But the Bureau of Land Management says it will continue its long-standing soil conservation practice of thinning or eliminating particular stands of pinyon and juniper trees in order to improve watershed and forage."It's pretty much business as usual," said BLM spokesman Don Banks. "Chaining is still one option we will consider. But right now it is the least preferred option."
The current BLM preference is "prescribed burns," where land managers deliberately set fire to thick stands of pinyon-juniper and then follow behind the fire planting grasses and shrubs.
The second preference is the use of chemical pellets that kill the trees but allow grasses and shrubs to flourish.
"How we address each area is going to be different," Banks said. "In some places, prescribed burning is the best option. In others, chemical treatments or aggressive firewood collection is best. And in others, we will still use chaining."
Two controversial chainings of pinyon-juniper forests that had been scheduled this year will probably not occur.
The BLM had planned to chain 300 acres of pinyon-juniper in the Cherry Creek area near Richfield. But that project has been postponed indefinitely because of a lack of funding, "and chances are it will not go forth anytime in the near future," Banks said."We'd like to redesign the project to do more burning and less chaining. The question is whether we can still get a good seed germination with a burn," added Alan Partridge, planning coordinator for the Richfield District.
A second 700-acre chaining planned for the St. John's area in Tooele County has also been called off while land managers try less-controversial approaches.
"For the past several months the BLM has been offering free-wood collecting permits for the area, and so far we have issued permits for about 500 cords of wood and 2,200 wood posts," Banks said. "It is making a difference."
If public demands slacken for the free firewood, the BLM will then look at using prison labor for a selective thinning of the trees, as well as prescribed burning of selected areas.
The BLM had originally planned to use chaining on both projects, a controversial process in which bulldozers drag huge chains between them, uprooting the thick stands of pinyon and juniper trees.
But environmentalists have protested the chainings, saying Utah should be preserving trees instead of uprooting them to make better forage for livestock. Stung by public protests last summer over various chaining projects, BLM state Director James Parker ordered a review of proposed chaining projects.
The result of the review, Banks said, is a confirmation of the BLM's land management practices, but with an increased willingness to look at alternative methods to remove the trees.
In particular, the Vernal BLM district conducted three burns in September, while the Cedar City District conducts two or three burns every year. The Vernal district has also had success with a "green wood sale" program in which up to 15 parcels a year of about 5 to 10 acres in size are opened to commercial and public firewood collection.
Other districts are looking more closely at using chemicals to kill the trees. "The chemical pellets soak into the ground over one to two years and kill the trees over time," Banks said.
The trees are considered by many soil conservationists and botanists to be "weeds" that suck up all available ground water, reducing the amount of water in streams, increasing erosion and prohibiting the growth of grasses and shrubs used for forage by livestock and wildlife.
Soil conservationists say the benefits of "vegetative manipulation" include less erosion, better wildlife habitat, better water quality, more water in the streams and better livestock forage.