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Inventory: NM piñon, juniper trees are growing

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Good news for pine nut lovers. Not so good for allergy sufferers.

A five-year inventory of New Mexico’s forested lands shows positive growth rates among the state’s most important pinon and juniper species. However, other trees in the drought-stricken state have struggled more in recent years.

Researchers with the State Forestry Division and the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station studied more than 3,000 areas across New Mexico between 2008 and 2012 to get a better idea of what was happening within the state’s forests. Officials say the resulting inventory is the most comprehensive collection of forest health trends in the state’s history.

Sara Goeking, a scientist at the federal research station and the report’s lead author, said a significant trend identified by the inventory was an overall increase in tree mortality and a decline in tree growth.

“Major factors affecting forest health include insects, wildfires and disease, all of which are related to multiyear weather patterns such as drought,” Goeking said.

While the recent drought has undoubtedly affected pinon and juniper resources in New Mexico, researchers said the magnitude of the impact varies widely and future mortality rates will depend on temperature and precipitation trends.

Pinon and juniper trees make up the most abundant types of forest in New Mexico. They cover more than 13.6 million acres, and more than half of those acres include pinon groves old enough to produce harvest-worthy quantities of pine nuts.

Data collected by the researchers suggest that in the absence of a major disturbance, New Mexico’s pine nut output will likely increase over the next 20 years.

As for New Mexico’s aspen groves, their area and volume haven’t changed much over the past decade. Aspen forests cover more than 380,000 acres in the state, according to the inventory.

Among the trees that make up most of New Mexico’s timber volume, the researchers found that ponderosa pine is the only species whose gross growth exceeds its mortality. Overall, the volume of wood harvested from the state’s forests has decreased by more than half over the past decade and by as much as 95 percent on national forest lands.

Data also showed that 275 different fires burned a total of 2.1 million acres in New Mexico between 2005 and 2011.

Mary Stuever, a coordinator with the State Forestry Division, said the inventory will help land managers make more informed decisions.

“We as New Mexicans are closely tied with our natural surroundings on both historical and cultural levels, which makes this analysis even more vital to help us learn to be better stewards of the land,” she said.