Saturday, January 28, 2017

Juniper Dunes Wilderness

During another era I did a small research project at the Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area ( I recently got a distant glimpse of the Wilderness Area while driving the Kahlotus-Pasco Road. 

Juniper Dunes Wilderness Area is the distance

I formerly lived fairly close to the dunes. My first trip to the dunes was led by a Boy Scout leader that had a good grasp of off the beaten path public lands and a goal of camping once a month regardless of the weather or season. I remember collecting shell casings and really large bullets in the dune fields. The dune area had been used as some sort of military training ground in the WWII era. Pasco was used as a navy air training center during the war and there were a number of test landing strips and gunnery ranges scattered about eastern Washington. The dunes may have been one of those ranges. Post WWII the site was used by the military for survival training.

1953 topographic map

During my hard core long distant running era me and my running mates would do training runs in the dunes. This was one of three sand dune fields we would go out to in order to work our legs hard. The Juniper Dunes were the biggest and a loop run across the dunes and back was a hard work out.

The dunes were designated a National Wilderness Area in 1984. It was shortly after that designation that I did my little research project. My parents had an exchange student from Italy that fall. Paula was eager to join me to see some of the country. Access to the juniper forest portion of the dunes requires a bit of hiking. We hiked across the open dryland wheat fields to the east of the dunes very near where the above picture was taken. We collected soil and sand samples and hiked back via moon light. It was a new adventure for Paula to be in such wide open country.

Access to the Juniper Dunes Wilderness is still a bit of a challenge without an ORV. The BLM allows ORV use on the west part of the dunes outside the Wilderness, but the road is pretty bad without 4-wheel drive and high clearance or a good ORV. Private land around the Wilderness is pretty heavily posted as no trespassing and in this open country it is a bit hard to not be noticed. On the positive side the difficult access is protective of a very sensitive environment.

Aerial view of Juniper Dunes Wilderness
The ORV area can be seen to the west

The junipers in the dunes are Juniperus occidentalis.  The dunes are the what allows them to survive. Much of eastern Washington is too dry for the trees, but the dune field allows rain to infiltrate into the ground and provides the needed moisture for the trees to survive.

Along the Pasco-Kahlotus Road there is one place where a couple of trees grow near the road. Hardly noticeable except they are the only trees for many miles either south or north of the area.

A lone Juniperus occidentalis along the Pasco-Kahlotus Road
Click image to blow up and see the magpie and large nest

These trees are very common in the scrub steppe to the south in Oregon and Nevada. For an eastern Oregon rancher it must seem odd that a stand of junipers would be designated a wilderness area. In eastern Oregon as well as other scrub steppe juniper areas fire control has caused a major shift in juniper density. The trees are growing over and destroying range land as well as other sensitive habitat areas. They are presenting a very hard challenge for both public and private land managers and was one of the root causes of conflict that took place in eastern Oregon last winter.

Most of eastern Washington is too dry for western juniper; the Juniper Dunes Wilderness is the northern extreme of the tree. Outside the dune area there are only a few in the Wallula Gap area. There used to be a few near Vantage but they are now gone. I am uncertain of a stand of junipers near Beverly - they may be Rocky Mountain junipers or maybe both. The lack of the tree in eastern Washington even in the more moist areas to the east, north and west suggests moisture alone is not the limiting factor. I suspect it is the longer hot and dry periods in eastern Washington relative to the cooler high plains of eastern Oregon.

1 comment:

Hollis said...

that's really interesting, junipers restricted to the dunes area, especially the pattern of distribution in the aerial photo. Thought about it for a few days but no profound insights ;-)