How Creating a Market For Juniper Could Help Oregon’s High Desert

Nov 21, 2012

You can stroll into any Home Depot in the northwest and walk out with a load of pine, fir, cedar, or maple lumber.

Ask for juniper, and you’ll probably get a blank look. But that may change. Juniper trees have overpopulated in eastern Oregon, and scientist say they are sucking the high desert dry.

A group of environmental entrepreneurs thinks the best way to restore the desert is by creating a commercial market for juniper. Amelia Templeton of EarthFix Reports.

Juniper growing in a desert.
Credit Photo courtesy Creative Commons

When you walk into Kendall Derby’s mill, the first thing you notice is the smell. It’s sharp and evergreen. Like the high desert after it rains.

Derby: “…the smell of juniper. People walk in here and they, oh, I love the smell. And I don’t have a sense of smell. Born without it. Never smelled it.”

This sawmill on the outskirts of Fossil, Oregon is dedicated to the bushy, short juniper tree. Juniper boards and fence posts are stacked to the ceiling in Derby’s small warehouse. Thick slabs with raw edges lean against the wall. Beetles have carved a filigree pattern into one of the slabs. Derby says he’ll sell it as a bench or a bar top.

Derby: “The target beast is one by six, two by six, six by six, different square lumber. But after you break a round log into square sticks you end up creating other stuff. “

Derby wears suspenders and he’s followed around by a friend’s yellow lab. And he gets excited talking about juniper. It has a fine tight grain. For years ranchers have used it to make fence posts, because it naturally resists decay. Best of all, it's local.

Derby: “We’ve got millions of acres of this stuff. It’s not imported from Brazil, it’s not imported from Malaysia. It’s ours.”

In fact, eastern Oregon has too much juniper. Scientists say there’s about 10 times more juniper trees here today than there were in 1870.

Fenty: “They’re a native plant that expanded beyond their historic range.”

That’s Brent Fenty, director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. He says people have inadvertently helped juniper to grow by putting out range fires and introducing hungry cattle.

Fenty: “They’re not eating juniper, and that’s giving those juniper a competitive advantage into disturbed areas, where all those grasses are being eaten.”

What was once shrub steppe is becoming forest. That’s a problem in a landscape that gets barely more than a foot of rainfall a year. Thirsty juniper trees with deep taproots can consume twenty-five gallons of water a day. That draws down streams and leaves less water for wildlife and native grasses.

The problem caught the eye of Martin Gobel, president of Sustainable Northwest.

Gobel: “It is beginning to have a real water desiccating effect in the high desert of Oregon.”

Gobel saw an opportunity for an environmental and economic win-win. Cutting juniper could help restore the shrub steppe grassland, and create jobs. So he went around to lumber wholesalers in Portland, and asked them if they’d be willing to stock local, sustainable juniper.

And most of the large warehouses said: "Oh, too small." "Eh, we don’t really know those suppliers." "Mmm… too nichey."

So Sustainable Northwest opened its own for-profit warehouse in Portland, to help people like Kendall Derby find a market for their wood. Juniper trees tend to be short and knotty so Gobel says the key has been developing the right products. Shavings for pets, posts for signs and fences.

Gobel: “It’s a challenging wood. It’s not that easy to love. It’s a tough love.”

Back in Fossil, Kendall Derby says his best customers are Portland gardeners who buy his chemical-free wood to build raised beds and planter boxes.

Derby: “See, the market is still trying to figure out what can work. Production-wise, sales wise, price wise.”

There are supply challenges too. Often there aren’t any roads into stands of juniper, and it can take forty or fifty stubby trees to fill up the back of a log truck. Business is still slow.

Derby sunk his inheritance and his retirement savings into the mill. And he isn’t making money yet. But Derby is optimistic the market will grow.

Derby: “My dream is to have four or five guys here working. That’s four or five not minimum wage jobs. In a town of four hundred people that matters.”

And Derby sees first hand how clearing juniper can help the desert ecosystem.

Behind the mill, there’s a slope he cleared of juniper a couple years ago. Now the native grasses are so thick he feels like rolling in them.

Derby: "This is pristine rangeland. Blue-bunch wheat grass. That’s this beast.

Templeton: "What’s this reedy- looking stuff?"

Derby: "That’s… these are Great Basin wild rye. This is the stuff, when they talk about grass as high as a horses’ saddle, this is the stuff they’re talking about riding through."

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber recently created an Oregon solutions task force for juniper. The task force is looking for ways to build a better supply chain for the sustainable wood, and to attract investors to the market.

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio