Thomas J. Straka: Nevada forests: Seldom out of sight but often slighted
I travel to Nevada once or twice a year and it’s not for the gambling. As a forester I love Nevada’s beautiful forests. It would be impossible to climb up to a bristlecone pine stand, for example, back in my home state.
Several decades ago I first flew into Nevada late at night and awoke in a hotel room that faced a mountain range, covered by thousands of trees. It was not what I was expecting and I’ve been fascinated by the state’s forests since. I think many people see the greenish shades on the sides of far-away mountains and never imagine just how forested Nevada really is.
Nevada has nearly 10.6 million acres of forest, making it 16 percent forested. It’s hard to overlook, but many don’t think of it except in terms of wildfires. The forest is seldom out of sight in Nevada and is larger in area than the total land area of the four smallest states!
The impact is mainly on recreation and aesthetics and that contributes to the economy. In addition small industries depend on it, like timber, firewood, posts, and pine nut resources. The U.S. Forest Service recently completed an inventory of the state’s forests and the details are online at https://www.fs.usda.gov/treesearch/pubs/53279.
White Pine and Nye counties each contain roughly 2 million acres of forestland, while Lincoln and Elko counties each contain over 1 million acres of forestland. Those four counties account for over two-thirds of the forestland.
The report has all kinds of interesting statistics. Most Nevadans know that their state is mainly public land. The BLM manages 63 percent of forestland acres and the U.S. Forest Service 30 percent (most of the national forests are in Nye and White Pine counties). About 1 percent each is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the combined Departments of Defense and Energy. Private forestland ownership is 4 percent and the state owns only about 0.2 percent.
But what about the trees themselves; how are they distributed? The Great Basin woodlands are primarily singleleaf pinyon pine and Utah juniper. On the very low slopes of the mountains juniper may be more common, but the pinyon pine-juniper forest type quickly dominates as elevation increases. The basins of Nevada are generally sagebrush and grasslands; the mountainsides are where the forests thrive. The forest is concentrated in the Lake Tahoe corner of the state and east-central and northeast Nevada.
Most of the forest in the center of the state supports pinyon pine-juniper to about 7,500 to 8,500 feet of elevation, then are treeless to elevations of around 10,000 feet where a subalpine forest of limber pine and bristlecone pine is supported. The singleleaf pinyon pine and the bristlecone pine are the state trees of Nevada. No two trees could better represent the state: the pinyon pine extending over much of Nevada and the bristlecone pine towering over the state at only a few of the very highest elevations.
The pinyon pine-juniper forest can produce marginal timber, but the three main products are Christmas trees, fuel wood, fence posts, and pine nuts. The singleleaf pinyon pine produces a very edible nut that was a staple of the Native Americans. Gathering pine nuts is a common recreational activity on public lands and commercial production from BLM and national forests can be hundreds of thousands of tons in good years. Other highly significant uses of Nevada’s forest are grazing, wildlife habitat, and recreation.
Nevada’s forests can be easy to overlook. They even have a major role in the state’s mining history. The early smelters would not have existed but for charcoal produced from the woodlands. The state history includes a Charcoal Burners War that occurred in Eureka County. Nevada is much more than sagebrush; it includes more forest than many realize.
Thomas J. Straka is a professor of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University in South Carolina. He has a keen interest in Western natural resource issues and spends considerable time in Nevada, often on some of the 10.6 million acres of forestland.