Skip to main content
ARS Home » Pacific West Area » Tucson, Arizona » SWRC » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #357094

Research Project: Understanding Water-Driven Ecohydrologic and Erosion Processes in the Semiarid Southwest to Improve Watershed Management

Location: Southwest Watershed Research Center

Title: Spatial and temporal variability of the impacts of Pinyon and Juniper reduction on hydrologic and erosion processes across climatic gradients in the Western US: A regional synthesis

Author
item Williams, Christopher - Jason
item Snyder, Keirith
item Pierson, Fred

Submitted to: Water
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 11/5/2018
Publication Date: 11/8/2018
Citation: Williams, C.J., Snyder, K.A., Pierson Jr, F.B. 2018. Spatial and temporal variability of the impacts of Pinyon and Juniper reduction on hydrologic and erosion processes across climatic gradients in the Western US: A regional synthesis. Water. 10(11):1607. https://doi.org/10.3390/w10111607.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/w10111607

Interpretive Summary: Pinyon and juniper woodlands exist on over 400,000 km2 of the western US, providing valuable ecosystem services. Significant alterations to these economically important and broadly distributed plant communities have accelerated due to changes in land management, modified disturbance regimes, and increased climatic variability. Considerable research has been completed on the ecohydrologic impacts of pinyon and juniper reductions throughout the western US; however, no broad synthesis of the literature has been compiled to date. This paper summarizes the ecohydrologic impacts of pinyon and juniper tree reductions across plot to watershed spatial scales, over short- and long-term periods, and across regional climatic gradients of the western US. The resulting synthesis provides requisite guidance to help land managers analyze the potential ecohydrologic impacts of both climatic- and human-driven changes to these landscapes. Further, the synthesis identifies key knowledge gaps to overcome in improving understanding of the ecohydrologic and erosion impacts of broadly occurring pinyon and juniper tree reductions in the western US.

Technical Abstract: Pinyon (Pinus spp.) and juniper (Juniperus spp.) woodlands are an important vegetation type in the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and southwestern desert regions of the western US that is undergoing substantial changes associated with land management, altered disturbance regimes, and climate change. Ecohydrologic impacts of these changes have been well studied, but, to date, there has been no broad synthesis of this information across the spatial and temporal scales and climatic regions of the western US. We synthesized a substantial body of literature on the ecohydrologic impacts of pinyon and juniper tree reductions across plot to watershed scales, short- and long-term periods, and regional climatic gradients. We found that the initial plot- to hillslope-scale ecohydrologic and erosion impacts of tree reduction on pinyon and juniper woodlands by fire, mechanical tree removal, or drought depend largely on: 1) the degree to which these perturbations alter vegetation and ground cover structure, 2) the initial conditions, and 3) inherent site attributes. Fire commonly imparts an initial increased risk for hillslope runoff and erosion that degrades over time with vegetation and ground cover recovery whereas tree reductions by mechanical means pose fewer initial negative ecohydrologic impacts. Tree reduction by either approach can enhance understory vegetation and improve ecohydrologic function on woodland-encroached sites over time, particularly on sites with an initially favorable cover of native herbaceous vegetation and a cool-season precipitation regime. Understory vegetation and ground cover enhancements appear to increase ecohydrologic resilience of some woodland communities to disturbances such as drought, fire, and insect infestations. In contrast, intensive land use, prolonged drought or repeated burning associated with invasions of fire-prone grasses can propagate long-term site degradation through persistent elevated runoff and erosion rates. Our synthesis suggests the annual precipitation requirement for increases in plot- to hillslope-scale soil water availability for herbaceous enhancement through tree removal likely ranges from 200-400 mm for sites in the Great Basin and northern Colorado Plateau (cool-season precipitation regimes), and, although suggested with great uncertainty, likely exceeds 400 mm for woodlands with rain-dominated precipitation regimes in the southwestern US. Overall, literature is inconclusive regarding tree reduction impacts on watershed-scale changes in groundwater and streamflow. The limited short- and long-term studies available across the broad woodland domain have yielded conflicting results that limit watershed-scale inferences. To date, there is little evidence that drought related changes to vegetation in pinyon and juniper woodlands substantially affect watershed-scale water availability and streamflow at the annual time scale. Our synthesis identifies key knowledge gaps to overcome in improving understanding of the ecohydrologic and erosion impacts of broadly occurring pinyon and juniper tree reductions in the western US. Given limitations discussed therein, current understanding of key structural and functional ecohydrologic relations for these landscapes provides a basis from which to assess and predict potential ecohydrologic and erosion responses to tree reductions across spatial and temporal scales and climatic gradients.