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What determines the effectiveness of Pinyon-Juniper clearing treatments? Evidence from the remote sensing archive and counter-factual scenarios

December 8, 2021

In the intermountain western US, expansion of Pinyon (Pinus edulis) and Juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodlands (PJ) into grasslands and shrublands is a pervasive phenomenon, and an example of the global trend towards enhanced woody growth in drylands. Due to the perceived impacts of these expansions on ecosystem services related to biodiversity, hydrology, soil stability, fire prevention, and livestock forage, mechanical and chemical PJ reduction treatments have been a long-standing practice in the region. More recently, PJ reduction practices have come under enhanced public scrutiny, due to potential impacts on PJ-dependent wildlife, risk of erosion due to soil disturbance, and cost effectiveness due to variable rates of long-term success. Moreover, there is growing interest in understanding the biotic, abiotic, and management conditions under which PJ reduction treatments are effective. Here, we evaluated PJ reduction treatment outcomes leveraging large, curated databases of land treatments, new remotely sensed fractional cover time-series products, gridded climate and soils data, and analytical approaches adopted from the econometric literature. From 302 treatment events and 1569 distinct treatment polygons we found evidence that treatments reduced tree cover and largely increased shrub and perennial herbaceous cover for 10 or more years. However, treatments were also associated with increases in annual, likely non-native, herbaceous cover. Importantly, we noted treatment outcomes varied by landscape context, with some soil and geomorphic settings exhibiting consistent returns to pre-treatment conditions within 10–15 years, and others exhibiting more persistent changes in functional type composition. Despite the overall trends we observed, there was considerable unexplained variability in outcomes from treatment to treatment, highlighting the need for caution and attention to local geomorphic and biological context in planning future treatments.