Drive any direction east of the Cascades, and you’ll see them in the distance: green and gray trees dotting the landscape. But it didn’t always look this way.
Western Juniper is a native tree that has gone rogue, pushing out other plants and wildlife, lowering the water table and transforming grasslands into desert. Its range has expanded by ten-fold in parts of the state, with juniper at well above 6 million acres across Eastern Oregon, up from about 1 million acres in the 1930s. A century of fire suppression, grazing practices and climate change are among the factors contributing to juniper’s excess proliferation. Today, the tree is acting more like an invasive species and it’s impacting wildlife habitat and the livelihood of farmers and ranchers. It is also increasing the risk of severe wildfire in the high desert.
Ecological and Economic Need
Western Juniper is a thirsty tree that can use up to 35 gallons of water per day if its roots find a source. As it spreads, it competes with sage brush, an essential habitat and forage for sage grouse, a charismatic bird that is close to being listed as an endangered species. If the bird were to be listed, it would severely impact ranching livelihoods and Eastern Oregon’s fragile economy.
To combat these problems, the Western Juniper Alliance – an Oregon Solutions project launched in 2013 and managed by Sustainable Northwest – is developing markets for the wood. Working with state and federal agency partners, business leaders, and nonprofit organizations, the Alliance is learning how Western Juniper utilization can boost Eastern Oregon’s economy and heal high desert habitat.
Careful harvest of juniper can boost Eastern Oregon’s economy by providing jobs for millers and harvesters, and a plentiful supply of naturally decay resistant wood for green building markets. Harvest also improves grazing conditions for local ranching, discourages the spread of invasive weeds, increases ground water supplies, decreases wildfire risks in communities and restores habitat for sensitive species like sage-grouse and mule deer.
This Project is Replicable
With appropriate funding, the project can also promote labor training to build a qualified workforce in the juniper industry, and ensure that small businesses have the financial resources and planning assistance they need to create new jobs in rural communities. Revolving, low interest, or forgivable loans will allow harvesters and millers to acquire the necessary capital to scale up operations.