This undated picture by the National Park Service shows the illegal harvest of alligator juniper trees at El Malpais National Monument near Grants, New Mexico. Park Service officials are asking for help from the public to stop the illegal harvesting of the trees, which are considered rare due to their slow growth rate. (Source: National Park Service)
Several dozen ancient alligator juniper trees have been illegally felled at El Malpais National Monument in western New Mexico, and the National Park Service authorities are trying to determine who is responsible.
Known for its unique, ridged bark, the alligator juniper grows very slowly. It can take up to 18 months for a seed to mature after pollination, and the rate of growth of young trees is around 0.6 inches per decade and slows down with age.
Officials said the felled trees were likely hundreds of years old.
Lisa Dittman, a spokeswoman for the national monument, said Tuesday that officials do not know why the trees are being targeted or what they will be used for. Residents of rural New Mexico often cut logs in the fall to meet winter heating needs, but cutting trees in El Malpais is illegal.
Cutting alligator juniper is affecting biodiversity within the monument, and officials said it will take the area many decades to recover.
The first discovery of illegal tree felling was reported in 2020. But the park’s law enforcement agencies, who monitored the area last year, have reported that more trees have been felled, the most recent incident occurring in October.
Park officials encourage the public to submit any information that may aid the investigation to the National Park Service tipline.
The National Park Service recently felled bushes and pruned trees in the same area of the monument in preparation for a series of mandatory fires to restore the fire to the ecosystem and is targeting the accumulation of vegetation that can lead to major catastrophic fires .
The park focuses on protecting alligator junipers before thinning occurs.
The largest of the southwestern junipers, the alligator juniper is found in western Texas, parts of northwestern New Mexico, and north-central Arizona near Flagstaff. The species also extends to northern and central Mexico.
Research has shown that alligator junipers can live up to 500 years. The trees stop growing when moisture conditions are poor, but begin to grow again with sufficient moisture, a trait that improves the species’ ability to survive in harsh, arid environments.
However, scientists have found that mortality can increase after several consecutive years of drought.