Saturday, June 1, 2013

What to do with Western Juniper?

Juniper encroaching on sage brush habitat in Oregon.
         Not all invaders are aliens. Western juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, is invading grassland habitats in central and eastern Oregon. This native species doesn’t fit our official definition of an invasive species—“nonnative organisms that cause economic or environmental harm” (ORS 570.755) —but it is sure acting like one.

         Between 1936 and 1988, the area of juniper forest in eastern Oregon increased 5.3 times from 420,000 to 2,200,000 acres.* The reason for this slow but steady invasion is that we’ve changed the way grasslands are managed. Native Americans used to set fire to the grasslands to keep them open. Not any more. We do our best to suppress fires because they threaten houses, livestock, and other things we care about.

         Unfortunately, we’ve created a juniper invasion. Encroaching juniper is degrading sage grouse and other wildlife habitat, shading out native grasses, sucking up ground water, and creating opportunities for invasions of weeds and other undesirable species. The state has convened a large task force to look for solutions. It’s called the Western Juniper Working Group (WJUG), and I’m the representative from the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA).

         I’m learning fast that it is complex issue. Some people on the WJUG would like ODA to declare Western juniper a noxious weed. We’re not going to do that. It is a native species, and thus has a place in Oregon ecosystems. However, the expansion of juniper is a problem, and if some sort of official recognition would help focus attention on it, we should consider our options. I’m looking forward to the discussion at the next State Weed Board meeting.

         Reintroducing fire as a management tool would seem to be a no-brainer, but there are serious liability questions. Currently, if your controlled burn gets out of control, you’re liable for fire suppression costs and damages.

         Most juniper suppression projects today are cut, pile, and burn. It is laborious, costly, and not popular with some members of the public.

         The ideal solution would be to find economic uses for juniper so there would be an incentive to log the trees. There are two challenges to that idea. One is that junipers occur in areas where there aren’t many mills and markets. Thus, costs to transport harvested wood to places where it can be processed are generally prohibitive. Secondly, compared to other trees in Oregon, junipers are short and gnarly. Juniper just doesn’t compete with Douglas fir, Ponderosa pine, and other conifers in terms of producing a suite of desirable wood products.

         Juniper does make interesting rustic furniture, but it’s a niche market. You’ll find it at a gallery in Sisters, Oregon, but not at J.C. Penny. I have a coffee table with twisted juniper legs that I like, but it’s not for everyone.

         Juniper is superior to all other woods in one way. It makes great fence posts that don’t rot. OSU has fence post trials that go back to the 20s and 30s. The juniper heartwood fence posts from way back then are still standing! I’ve never seen juniper posts for sale in the building supply stores I frequent, but that is probably because no one asks for it, and it would be more expensive. Maybe we can start a movement to encourage people to ask for local juniper instead of using treated wood posts and landscape timbers. I’d pay more if I knew it was good for the environment and would last longer, wouldn’t you?

         We need a good slogan. How about:
  • Got juniper?
  • Juniper, the other fence post.
  • Fence the invader! 

Help me out here. What would you recommend?

Dan Hilburn

*Gedney, D.R., D.L. Azuma, C.L. Bolsinger, and N. McKay. 1999. Western Juniper in      Eastern Oregon. USDA, Forest Service, Gen. Tech. Report PNW-GTR-464.     53pp.