KLAMATH FALLS - After a few shots of western juniper gin maybe you can sleep it off in a western juniper bed.
According to Scott Leavengood, a wood products agent in the Klamath County office of the Oregon State University Extension Service, several market forces have come together to make western juniper a more valuable product.
The gin is more of a novelty item because it is just flavored with western juniper berries, explains Leavengood. But twisted juniper bed posts are examples of the arty products you can make with the wood.
Most people are only familiar with juniper as fence posts and firewood, according to Leavengood, but there are hundreds of other products that can be made from the underutilized wood.
For a variety of reasons western juniper has been taking over the range landscape for the last 100 years, and juniper woodlands now occupy 10 to 15 times more land than they did in the previous century.
It's most likely a combination of fire suppression and over-grazing has allowed more young junipers to flourish, according to Leavengood. This has led some ranchers and other landowners to look for ways to get rid of the junipers to increase forage for cattle.
The most common remedies are cutting the trees or pushing them over with heavy equipment. Usually after the junipers are cut, they are burned or simply piled up and allowed to slowly decompose.
The cost of knocking the trees down mechanically is $35-50 per acre, but manual felling, delimbing and slash dispersal can cost as much as $250 per acre, according to Larry Swan, a U.S. Forest Service resource specialist and coordinator of the ad-hoc Western Juniper Commercialization Project.
Swan estimates that at least 3,000 ranchers in Oregon and California plan to thin their juniper woodlands in the next 10 years, and the cost of that could be as high as $13 million.
The Western Juniper Commercialization Project is the result of discussions during a 1991 focus group of wood products manufacturers organized by the USDA Forest Service's Winema National Forest in south central Oregon, Leavengood said. The partnership benefits both ranchers and manufacturers.
"The purpose of the focus group was to identify critical issues from a manufacturer's perspective, potential areas of cooperation, and who could consider working together with the Forest Service and other government and non-profit economic development organizations," said Leavengood.
"Impetus to discussions was provided by the shutdown of several local mills," he said. "Over the course of just 18 months, 1,200 manufacturing jobs were lost out of a total regional manufacturing employment base of less than 4,000."
Western juniper heartwood is highly durable (similar to redwood and cedars) and has aromatic properties like its close relative eastern red cedar, Leavengood said.
The color of the wood varies from milky white to deep reddish-brown and has large, swirling grain patterns and bands of heartwood mixed with sapwood, similar to eastern red cedar. Tests have shown that juniper wood machines, glues, and finishes well.
Once dried, juniper wood shrinks and swells less than many other Pacific Northwest species such as Douglas-fir, ponderosa pine, and western red cedar. Juniper has some unique bending properties. When soaked in hot water, thin samples have been tied into intricate knots without splitting.
Still, Leavengood cautioned that landowners probably aren't going to make money selling juniper wood, partially because the harvest costs are three to five times that of pine. However, these developing markets should eventually eliminate the cost of thinning juniper woodlands, he said.
Even if western juniper becomes more valuable, there is little danger of millers wanting to cut old growth junipers (tree identified by some scientists as those 140 years old or older). Generally, they have poor wood quality.
The Western Juniper Commercialization Project received the 1997 Oregon Governor's Cup for Industrial Excellence. The award, Leavengood noted, was an engraved juniper cup.