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The Juniper Economy Oregon/Washington BLM



The Juniper Economy

It takes a pretty powerful plant to bring businesses, environmental groups and government agencies into agreement - the western juniper tree has to go. But now one of Oregon's most troubling weeds might just become its next big cash crop.

story by Toshio Suzuki
illustration by Matt Christenson

There really isn't a lot of money to be made in juniper," admitted one of the group's conveners.

"Not yet," a member quickly chimed in.

And with that, the main obstacle and goal for expanding western juniper markets in Oregon were quickly summarized at a recent meeting hosted by the Bureau of Land Management.

Now, it should be noted, the native western juniper tree is a uniquely troublesome species that brings together business owners, environmental groups, government land agencies and many more into agreement: it needs to be cut in Oregon because it is encroaching, rapidly, in places it doesn't belong.

Most of this juniper land grab-estimated to be about 10 million acres-is happening in eastern Oregon, where the BLM has a lot of land.

For the first time in its history, the western juniper compelled the Oregon noxious weed board to recognize a native species as a problem, explained Dan Hilburn, plant program director for the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

"It's spreading like an invasive species, even though it's native," said Hilburn.

A 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture study estimated that since the late 1800s, due mainly to modernized wildfire fighting strategies, juniper woodlands throughout the West have increased tenfold.

One aim of the Western Juniper Alliance (formerly known as the Western Juniper Utilization Group, a name teased for its impossible-to-pronounce WJUG acronym) is to increase awareness for the variety of reasons why felling juniper is a good idea.

Ranchers dislike juniper because it takes food from their cattle. Conservationists don't like how juniper degrades soil and changes traditional ecosystems by sucking up water. Loggers, truckers and millers, like all businesses, are always interested in exploring new revenue sources. State and federal agencies don't want to see a useful product and biomass energy source go to waste when it could stimulate rural economies. And basically nobody wants to see the further loss of sage grouse habitat.

The sage grouse connection to juniper is what grabs a lot of attention, to the extent that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell visited Lakeview, Oregon, in September to see how the BLM's habitat restoration projects were focusing on juniper.

Todd Forbes, BLM field manager for the Lakeview resource area, was there during Jewell's visit to explain that once even sparse juniper infill establishes on a landscape, sage grouse get nervous thinking that predators are lurking in the trees, causing them to disappear from the prospective breeding ground.

Turning Juniper Into Green
illustration by Matt Christenson

"Once juniper density reaches somewhere about 7 or 10 percent, (sage grouse) quit using those areas entirely," said Forbes.

The greater sage grouse is a candidate this year to be listed on the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Juniper cutting for sage grouse habitat often means leaving the timber on the land or burning it where it used to stand, something that the BLM is trying to change with its participation in the WJA group.

"The point of this group is looking at the fact that juniper is going to get cut - probably at a pace, scale that Oregon has never seen," said Lindsey Babcock, a forester for the BLM and a WJA group convener. "Is there something else we can be doing with this juniper that makes sense?"

Planter boxes, roadway sign posts and gin are a number of the end products made from juniper that could benefit from this type of market expansion.

For Ken Kestner, the Lake County commissioner attending his first WJA meeting, it is his childhood roots on an Arkansas farm that gave him his "save every stick mentality."

"It's a cut and burn situation" for juniper right now in Lake County, he said. "I cringe every time I see that."

Further certifications for western juniper lumber, upcoming Oregon legislation proposals and another year of funding for WJA are all potential reasons for optimism, according to the group.

"This is going to be a banner year for juniper sales," said John Audley, president of Sustainable Northwest, during the group meeting at the BLM's Salem office.

"The buzz is big," said Tom Kelly, owner of Neil Kelly, one of the largest home remodel companies in America. "Everyone is talking about juniper."