Jun 13, 2023

A poor year for pine nuts? Here’s what Southern Utahns should know before heading out to gather

CEDAR CITY — It’s a slow year for pine nuts, but Southern Utahns shouldn’t let that stop them from hitting the trail.

Southwest Utah has a long tradition of collecting the delectable nuts, with people from Cedar City having a long-standing reputation for being “pine nut pickers,” St. George News reporter Haven Scott wrote in this article on Medium. Native Americans have been eating pine nuts for many generations before that.

Those following the tradition are ready to go with pine nut season underway. It begins in mid-August with collectors grabbing closed cones that can be allowed to dry and later opened for extracting.

Cones typically open naturally by the end of September, and most nuts are released by late October, said Jacqueline Russell, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management Color Country District.

“Aim for late summer to early fall, when pine cones begin to open but before the first heavy snow,” she told Cedar City News. “This is typically when pine nuts are most abundant and easiest to collect.”

Those interested can collect cones from the ground. Alternatively, they can spread a tarp beneath a “good tree” and shake the nuts loose from open cones still attached to the branch, Russell said.

Southern Utah has two pine nut-producing species, with good cone crops following a multiyear cycle. Common pinyons, also called Colorado or two-needle pinyons, increase production on a four-to-seven-year cycle. BLM Cedar City Field Manager Paul Briggs said the species is often found closer to Cedar City and its surrounding forests.

The single-leaf pinyon pine, limited to Western Utah and found in the Indian Peak Range north of Modena, produces larger nuts and is the most popular choice for harvesters. Single-leaf crops typically follow a three-to-four-year cycle, Russell said.

“This year is a very poor year for cones,” she said.

While many assume high precipitation will increase the pine nut crop, that wasn’t the case for Southern Utah this year, Briggs said. It’s possible the trees were impacted by a late, cool spring. However, due to increased pollen production, locals may see a higher yield next year.

On Utah’s BLM lands, those collecting for personal use can harvest up to 10 pounds of nuts or approximately 2 bushels of cones. Individuals collecting more must apply for a permit.

Additionally, amounts over 50 pounds are considered for commercial purposes and require closer coordination with the BLM, Russell said. If in doubt, Southern Utahns can contact their local BLM field office to ensure they have the correct permit if required and obtain additional guidelines.

To collect responsibly and reduce environmental impact, collectors should follow Leave No Trace guidelines, Russell said. Pine nut collection can adversely affect ecosystems when done incorrectly or excessively.

For instance, frequent foot traffic and equipment use off-trail can cause soil compaction and erosion or damage understory vegetation, she said.

Using chain saws or similar tools to cut limbs can harm trees and put them at risk of disease or pests. People should stay on established roads and trails, use nondestructive tools, such as poles and ladders, and practice gentle collection techniques to mitigate their impact, Russell said.

“It’s crucial to avoid damaging the tree or its cones,” she added.

Collecting may also impact wildlife, as various species of birds, squirrels and other small mammals rely on pine nuts for food. Russell said that over-collecting can cause food scarcity, so harvesters should take only what they can reasonably use and leave the rest behind.

Litter and waste can also harm wildlife and the environment, so individuals should pack out what they pack in, she said.

“To ensure sustainable pine nut collection with minimal ecological impact, it’s essential to stay informed about BLM regulations and best practices,” Russell said. “Education and awareness are key: the more collectors understand about the ecosystem, the better equipped they are to minimize their footprint.”

For a successful trip, the BLM suggests Southern Utahns:

Additionally, pine nut season runs concurrently with many of Utah’s big game hunts, so harvesters should remain aware while wandering in the wilderness.

Briggs reminds Southern Utahns that it can be difficult for hunters to see what’s beyond their targets, especially if people blend in with the forest, so it is a good idea to wear hunter orange or other bright colors.

“Enjoy the experience,” Russell added. “Pine nut collecting can be a peaceful, rewarding activity that connects you with nature and provides a delicious reward for your efforts.”

Why are pine nuts so expensive?

While pine nuts are common in certain parts of Southern Utah, they are considered a delicacy around the globe and are uncommon in other areas.

The “perceived rarity” is caused by various factors, including limited habitat, as they are produced by certain pine trees, like the Southwest’s pinyon pines, which grow in specific climate and soil conditions, Russell said.

Pinyon and other pines that produce pine nuts grow slowly and can take 75-100 years before growing a significant number of cones, limiting annual yield. The nuts can be difficult to collect as they often require manual picking and access to them may be limited, Russell said.

Collectors must also compete with wildlife that eat pine nuts, reducing the amount that can be harvested. Additionally, climate change, pests and diseases can impact tree health and reduce the number of cones produced.

“They are not as widespread or as easily harvested as other nuts, contributing to their higher price and perceived rarity in global markets,” Russell added. “It’s also why sustainable and responsible harvesting practices on BLM-administered lands and elsewhere are so crucial.”

To learn more about mitigating environmental impacts, visit Tread Lightly’s website. The nonprofit offers tips to recreate outdoors responsibly.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

Alysha Lundgren joined the St. George News team in 2022. She began her career as a freelancer, writing resource articles for families of children with disabilities. She's also covered topics such as astronomy, recreation and nature. Originally from Nevada, Alysha fell in love with Utah quickly after moving to Cedar City. In her free time, she enjoys wandering and photographing Utah's gorgeous landscapes or hunkering down in a blanket to play video games or read a good book.

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CEDAR CITY — Why are pine nuts so expensive?