Volume XVIII | Issue 2 | Fall 2018
Biologists estimate that juniper stands now cover more than 9 million acres in Eastern Oregon. Photo: Sustainable Northwest Wood

Solving the problem of the thirsty juniper

Collaboration works to slow the invasion while boosting the local economy

Early ranchers shared the wide-open lands of Central and Eastern Oregon with about 1 million acres of native western juniper. Today, because of a combination of factors including fire suppression, grazing practices and climate change, biologists estimate that juniper stands now cover more than 9 million acres. The thirsty trees suck up precious water resources and crowd out other plants and wildlife. 

That’s not good. High desert ecosystems suffer greatly from the invasion. One juniper can suck up to 40 gallons of water a day, water that could be nourishing grasses, wildlife and cattle. In fact, a quarter of the region’s grasslands are considered lost to the expansion of juniper, which is relentlessly expanding at about 1.5% each year. 

Here’s what is good: A collaboration of state and federal agencies, business leaders and nonprofit groups is working hard to create a market for the species, which would slow the spread of juniper while injecting a dose of badly needed vitality into the region’s cash-strapped economy. It’s a rare win-win proposition: restoration of degraded acres resulting in jobs for rural industry.  

The Western Juniper Alliance was created in July 2013 by then-Gov. John Kitzhaber with the goal of restoring ecosystems in Eastern Oregon through economic development. It’s not the first time such efforts have been launched ­— it’s more like the third. 

“People have been trying to figure out juniper for 20-plus years,” says Dylan Kruse, policy director for Sustainable Northwest, which is leading the effort. “But now, for the first time, we have the full network in place to do this work.”

It’s the “new natural resource economy,” a phrase coined by University of Oregon researchers looking for ways to help diversify rural economies and also enhance environmental, social and cultural assets. The research is partially funded by The Ford Family Foundation. 

Sustainable Northwest helps create the market and supply chain for juniper products by partnering with manufacturing facilities and distribution channels. The organization provides strategic intervention and assistance all along the supply chain, from the landowner to the logger, to the mill and to distributors and vendors. Its forester connects landowners to loggers and mills. 

The organization’s for-profit arm, Sustainable Northwest Wood in Portland, ensures that juniper sawmill owners have a place to sell their product. The lumberyard’s mission is to support small mills in rural communities. It only carries sustainable wood. “Juniper does that one better,” says Ryan Temple, the business’ president. “It’s not just about sustainability, it’s actually about restoration.” 

John Shelk, managing director of Ochoco Lumber Co. in Prineville, praises Sustainable Northwest Wood for the progress in creating markets for the juniper product. 

Shelk, an active member of the Western Juniper Alliance, has been involved in the juniper effort for several years, after mentoring a young juniper mill owner. “The inconsistency of log supply drove that young man to exit the business, but by then I was so emotionally invested in what he was doing, I really wanted to take on the challenge,” he says.

Two-thirds of the issues facing the juniper market two years ago have been successfully addressed, Shelk says, but one remains — building a cadre of loggers willing to harvest juniper. Juniper has to be felled and limbed by hand, an increasingly rare practice as loggers turn to mechanized equipment. 

“It’s a change in mindset,” Shelk says, “and many of these folks just don’t want to revert to hand-falling and hand-delimbing. We just might have to grow our own loggers.” 

The appeal of juniper

The attributes that make juniper so difficult to manage also make it a great green product. Juniper is durable, rot-resistant and can handle extreme weather conditions. That means juniper works as well or better in applications that traditionally use cedar or pressure-treated wood, such as landscape timbers or fencing. Juniper is gnarly and its knotholes and odd grain make rustic-looking paneling and flooring that appeals to some markets.

Temple has seen the demand for juniper grow considerably at Sustainable Northwest Wood. “When we started business 10 years ago, juniper was 10% of our sales. Today 50% of everything we do is juniper,” he says. 

Researchers today are studying the wood to bolster usability claims and develop new markets, such as shavings, compost, mulch or post and pole applications. Oregon State University recently completed research on design values that allowed western juniper to be added to a publication called the National Design Specifications for Wood Construction, a necessary step before many public agencies can order the wood.

It’s a great story for rural entrepreneurs, according to Temple. “You have people logging, hauling, trucking and milling — that’s creating jobs through the removal and processing of the juniper.” And it’s environmentally friendly, too.

Sustainable Northwest partners with businesses, including nine juniper sawmills. They are all small operations, typically employing two to seven people, and ranging from sawmill/dryer operations to band-saw and mobile setups.

A mill in Fossil, Oregon, named In the Sticks Juniper Sawmill, is one of those businesses. Last winter, owner Kendall Derby kept five workers busy. Depending on log supply, he’s had as many as 11 on payroll. “There are only 1,200 people in the whole flippin’ county,” Derby says. “My sweet spot is about seven people but the trick is finding those seven people.”

It’s challenges like these that keep Sustainable Northwest and the lumberyard busy. “We spend a lot of time helping to cultivate this growing industry,” Temple says. “We’ve provided advances to allow them to acquire logs. I spend a lot of time giving them whatever support they need.”

So far, four years into the effort, the Western Juniper Alliance can point to 45 direct jobs for loggers, millworkers, and in distribution and sales. The goal is to add another 20 in the next five years.

 “Juniper is appealing to that green, eco-conscious audience that wants a natural, organic product, and it has a great sustainability story tied to it,” says Greg Block, president of Sustainable Northwest. “And we’re doing it all with a species we are trying to get rid of. It’s a cool story that people really appreciate.” 

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