From Problem to Profit

Western juniper could benefit Oregon's "green" economy

Steve Ashley standing int he woods

OSU forestry student Steve Ashley has spent six summers fighting forest fires in Central Oregon. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ashley)

Which of Oregon’s abundant tree species can provide not only logs for your vacation cabin but scented oil for your afternoon massage and flavor for your evening cocktail? Juniperus occidentalis, western juniper. This hardy species – which is endemic to the dry, rocky grasslands east of the Cascades – has heartwood that is both beautiful and enduring, fragrance that is coveted for soaps and lotions, and berry-like cones that give gin its characteristic taste (indeed, the word “gin” is derived from the Dutch word for “juniper,” genever or jenever).

Despite its potential market value, this high-desert native is viewed mainly as a worrisome invader across much of Oregon’s rangeland. Its dense roots suck up gallons of water, stealing scarce moisture from sagebrush, grasses and streams. Habitat for wildlife and forage for livestock are becoming lost or degraded. Ranchers are fighting back, downing the trees with chainsaws and tractors. Much of the wood remains where it falls, unused.

From Logs to Lotions

Transforming juniper from problem to profitability is the vision of OSU forestry student Steve Ashley. Cultivating new markets for juniper products could benefit not just Oregon’s ranchers but also its mills, builders, landscapers, furniture makers, garden centers, retailers and enterprises in specialty niches such as essential oils, craft distilleries and animal bedding, he says. And then there’s the growing demand for sustainable energy. Juniper is a vast source of biomass just waiting to be tapped, Ashley asserts.

So what’s getting in the way? That’s the question Ashley explored for his senior thesis in the Wood Science and Technology program with guidance from his adviser, Scott Leavengood, director of OSU’s Wood Innovation Center. For the young man from Albany who spent boyhood summers working on the 700-acre Prineville farm where his grandfather grew mint, alfalfa and sugar beets, it’s more than just an academic question. He is constantly drawn back to the sage and rimrock and dry, desert winds of Central and Eastern Oregon. For the past six fire seasons, he’s been back out among the junipered hills battling wildfires with the U.S. Forest Service.

“Since I was a kid helping out on my grandpa’s ranch, I’ve seen the juniper grow up and take over,” Ashley says.

Reviving Ecosystems

An estimated 6.5 million acres of private and government lands in Oregon are classified as juniper savanna or juniper forest. That’s up from just 1.5 million in the 1930s. Suppression of wildfires on rangelands has allowed young seedlings to survive and flourish in recent decades. Yet despite the abundance – and landowners’ eagerness to be rid of it – juniper occupies a very small place in Oregon’s wood-products industry. Typically a short, limby tree that tapers sharply and has a swirling grain pattern, juniper is not ideal for mills, which are geared for long, straight-grained, knot-free logs, Ashley says. With only one large-scale juniper mill in the state – the nonprofit REACH (Rehabilitation, Employment and Community Housing) mill in Klamath Falls – transportation costs and logistics hinder large-scale logging.

Harvesting presents its own set of hurdles. Scattered widely and randomly across the landscape, juniper doesn’t lend itself to efficient logging like dense stands of, say, Douglas fir or ponderosa pine, Ashley explains.

But none of these impediments is impossible to overcome, according to Ashley. In his study, he makes recommendations for expediting the western juniper market, including using alternative harvesting methods such as mule or horse logging and creating a “value-added” product such as wood chips right on the harvesting site.

His vision for juniper in Oregon centers on its “green” assets.

“The ecological effects of removing western juniper have yielded great results in increasing stream flows and native grasses,” Ashley says. The ranchers he interviewed have seen “drastic ecological changes” after cutting juniper on their land. In fact, one of those ranchers, Bill McCormack of Brothers, told Ashley that “the grasses seem to grow overnight” as soon as the juniper is cut down.

Besides reviving ecosystems, harvested juniper can be used in all sorts of green products, from long-lived fence posts and landscape timbers that don’t need to be treated with chemicals to pellets for woodstoves to biofuels for energy generation.

Down to Business

For the juniper market to take off in Oregon, however, landowners, mill operators and government agents need to reach a meeting of the minds on how to move it forward, Ashley says. This “communication triangle,” he insists, must collaborate more closely to benefit all stakeholders. In the meantime, he plans to seek investment capital for a start-up company where he can put his extensive juniper knowledge to work.

“The public needs to be re-educated about western juniper,” he says. “They may be very interested in juniper products because the harvest restores ecosystems and yields ‘green’ products. Anything green is selling these days.”

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