Guest opinion: Maligned practice of chaining restores ecosystems

A recent television ad campaign calls for a complete and permanent halt to chaining on Utah’s BLM lands. Chaining is the practice of dragging a heavy chain between two tractors to rip out large woody plants, and it’s usually employed in the West to control dangerously overgrown pinyon-juniper tree stands.

After the trees are removed, reseeding in the area with native species follows to ensure a speedy return to a thriving, diverse ecosystem. Soon, native grasses, shrubs and flowers are established and animal species large and small move into the new landscape.

The television ad showed bulldozers viciously ripping down trees, leaving nothing but a barren landscape. These cherry-picked images of chaining display only the first stage of the process, failing to show the end result – a healthy ecosystem teeming with native plants and animals.

A quick trip to the National Park Service’s website shows that pinyon-juniper stands have been getting thicker and larger for the past 100 years throughout the West, leading to a host of negative side effects. As pinyon stands expand and thicken, they push out native grasses and shrubs, creating an ecological desert. When an ecosystem becomes dominated by a single species or two (in this case pinyon and juniper), large fauna like elk and deer as well as small critters like rabbits migrate away to find lusher fields to feed on. Several academic studies confirm this finding. Several other studies have shown that removing pinyon-juniper woodlands correlates with a cleaner and healthier watershed.

A forest made up entirely of pinyons and junipers also creates a fire hazard. Thick pinyon forests burn hotter and longer than ecosystems filled with less woody plants. Without active management, catastrophic wildfires spurred on by expansive pinyon-juniper forests will increasingly threaten our beautiful landscapes and rural communities, and put ranchers out of business. Surely we can all agree this is a problem that needs to be remedied.

Land managers at the BLM and Utah Department of Natural Resources can address the expanding pinyon-juniper problem in a variety of ways. First, they can do nothing and allow the ecosystem to run its course. In expanding juniper stands this would cause the landscape to deteriorate (rarely is this advocated for).

A second option is to conduct controlled burns. This certainly has its place, and it’s an effective way to manage the expansion of pinyon-juniper woodlands. Prescribed burns, however, carry a huge risk. In a number of cases, controlled burns have slipped into the uncontrolled category. Given conditions beyond anyone’s control, a fire that was meant to thin out only a few acres can leave thousands of acres devastated (like a fire in 2000 near Los Alamos, New Mexico, where 280 homes were destroyed). These accidents can claim lives, destroy thousands of acres of healthy ecosystem, and damage property. Given these drawbacks, a third option, chaining, can provide a safe and effective alternative.

Conservation groups’ support and financial backing of chaining programs indicate the strategy’s efficacy. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, for example, helped fund chaining in nearly 900 acres in Sevier County to improve habitat for local elk herds. The Mule Deer Foundation, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative also collaborated on a chaining project in the Grimes Wash area of Emery County in 2012.

Are there times when chaining is inappropriate? Sure. Should managers work with biologists to improve the practice? Of course. There is an appropriate time for each of many management practices, whether it be controlled burns, chaining, selective logging or even leaving an ecosystem alone. Rather than taking smart policy options completely off the table, as the anti-chaining ads suggest, let’s focus on how we can best apply a practice that has been effective for decades.

Zachary Schofield is a policy intern at Sutherland Institute.