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Drought is diminishing firewood access for Navajo wood haulers

University of Utah Anthropology Department

Many people on the Navajo Nation gather firewood to heat their homes in winter. But the pinyon juniper woodlands they rely on are dying due to drought. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with University of Utah environmental scientist Kate Magargal, whose work raises the alarm about the future of firewood access on the northern Navajo Nation.

Tell me about the models you did projecting the future; what do you expect to see in light of climate change?

It kind of depends on what line you draw around to calculate the numbers, but under a high emissions scenario, or essentially if we stay on the path that we’re on, in terms of just emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, we expect there to be somewhere between a 15 and 25 percent reduction in the overall biomass of pinyon-juniper woodlands in the study area. We don’t have numbers just yet on how you might be able to generalize that into all pinyon juniper woodlands… But it’s huge drop in the amount of wood essentially that will be available both as part of the ecosystem, and to wood haulers… One of the things it means is that people who already have to travel really far to find firewood, to go wood hauling, which have to probably travel even farther, at least in the region.

How immediate is that effect, do you have a bunch of dead trees on the landscape that could be used for firewood initially, and then a problem further down the road, or is it quicker than that?

That’s a good point. I think in the near term it actually will result in more firewood… One of the things almost everybody I talked to says is the best tree to get is the ones that just recently fell over or are still standing dead. As we’re seeing these die-offs happen, that means more trees in that condition, that are just recently perished. But over time, especially as those ideal trees are harvested, or if they’re not harvested, they will just decay—over time, over the next 50 to 100 years, the result will probably be less firewood available as well as less trees left on the landscape to be that base for future firewood.

Can you talk just a little more broadly about the importance of having firewood access on the Navajo Nation?

Yeah, definitely… People need firewood for all kinds of reasons. Many of those reasons have to do with cultural identify and being able to maintain practices such as ceremonies, which are important in numerous different ways…In addition to that, there are these economic aspects, where firewood is really the way that people ensure that they have heating and cooking fuels for their home. A lot of folks on Navajo Nation, and other tribal lands in the region, don’t necessarily have great connectivity to electrical grids that people in cities take for granted… And so the ability to have firewood, which is a lot more in the domain of an individual person or household’s ability to do something about in the short term, just allows people to have those basic needs met.

I know you’ve been out in the field with Navajo wood haulers for this research, what’s the mood, is there a lot of worry about the future?

It really varies. Everybody is in a good mood when they’re wood hauling. It’s really hard work… but just the opportunity to go to the woodlands, and to oftentimes spend some time in a cooler climate or just be there participating in that ecological connection… it’s kind of a joyous thing, that’s just another element of how important this is as part of a way of life.

Kate, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thanks, Melissa.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.