Sept./Oct. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Kathi Corder and Carolyn Carey
and courtesy of Sustainable Northwest and Marcus Kauffman
Distinctive lumber from invasive plant makes itself right at home
Juniper wood brings a rustic, durable beauty to home improvements. The versatile building material has the strength of redwood and cedar, making it suitable for a variety of projects, including decks, cabinetry, countertops, stairs and garden structures.
People have valued wood for its beauty and strength from ancient times, recognizing it as a gift of the forest. But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. That's the case with native—but invasive—Western juniper.
Decades of wildfire suppression, years of drought, climate change and a general lack of forest management have allowed this shrub and tree species to go rogue—spreading like weeds across fragile landscapes and degrading sensitive wildlife habitat.
Land management experts say in the past 130 years, Western juniper has expanded by as much as tenfold in parts of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with the potential to occupy far more area in the future. The rugged plant already infests more than 4 million acres in California.
What's encouraging is that people in government agencies, academia and business are coming together to find solutions to the problem, including how to manage runaway growth, restore vital ecosystems and build "juniper economies" in rural communities.
The goal is to manage juniper forests in ways that protect sagebrush habitat, according to Sean Curtis, Modoc County director of natural resources. Birds and animals such as the greater sage grouse, pygmy rabbit, sagebrush lizard, golden eagle and pronghorn antelope depend on sagebrush habitat. Some species, including the greater sage grouse, live nowhere else.
Part of the solution to improving sagebrush habitat and valuable rangeland, Curtis said, is finding ways to remove and turn tons of sturdy, richly textured juniper wood into must-have consumer products.
"Controlling the spread of invasive juniper in our area is one of the most important things we will do on the landscape for the next 20 years," said Curtis, a Modoc County Farm Bureau director. "Everything we will do in the future will depend on how well we address this problem through sound management on both privately owned and public land."
In the Modoc National Forest in the state's northeast corner, actions are underway to reduce the number of overgrown acres and restore about 30,000 acres a year to the healthy conditions that existed more than a century ago. That means logging and clearing the trees and shrubs.
Junipers in a healthy Western ecosystem can live more than 1,000 years; land managers said no old-growth stands will be damaged during carefully planned landscape-restoration projects. But for wood from smaller, prolific juniper stands, researchers say they're convinced markets for a wide variety of juniper wood products can be developed.
From left, Servando Melendrez, Tom Esgate and Doug Lindgren are some of the local loggers who work with environmental experts to target juniper removals where habitat and water resources are threatened. A juniper with an 18-inch trunk can guzzle 30 to 40 gallons of water a day.
Buzzing about juniper
Hurdles to building a vibrant juniper wood sector include high harvest costs for removal and lack of nearby sawmills to process the wood, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture market analysts.
But at a recent U.S. Bureau of Land Management conference in Portland, Neil Kelly, owner of one of the nation's largest home remodel companies, said, "The buzz is big. Everyone is talking about juniper."
Like redwood and cedars, juniper wood is highly durable. It resists rot and disease, has aromatic properties and offers color variations from pale white to deep reddish-brown. Architects and builders are demonstrating that it finishes well for cabinetry, flooring, stairs, decks and handrails, while others see an opportunity for juniper in highway safety structures such as signposts and guardrails.
"There's a lot of juniper that needs to be removed and it makes sense to find beneficial uses for the wood," Curtis said, noting that harvested juniper is also being chipped for use as biomass fuel for power generation.
"Sometimes there's not much you can do with juniper, except remove it for the conservation benefits," said Doug Lindgren, owner of Tubit Enterprises, a logging company in Burney. "But we're talking with people in areas where juniper may be suitable for milling and then be turned into consumer products."
Lindgren and logging project manager Tom Esgate, who specialize in treating landscapes to reduce wildfire hazards and restore watersheds, work on "prescriptive" landscape projects in Modoc and Lassen counties. Lindgren described the projects as highly collaborative, involving federal, state and local agencies, as well as environmental groups.
"We're working on building healthy forests—forests that will produce benefits now and into the 21st century and beyond," he said.
Artisans and farmers select juniper wood for a variety of woodworking projects, as it offers many advantages—it naturally comes in a range of colors and is highly durable. Clockwise from left, juniper wood appears in stair construction, vineyard trellises, fine art sculptures and furniture.
Buying the best
USDA market researchers said they're surprised juniper hasn't become a more popular wood for high-end consumer products. They conclude juniper sales could be doubled in niche markets, if people knew the story behind this native wood.
Eric Almquist, owner of Almquist Lumber Co. in Arcata, agrees. His lumberyard and small mill are a destination for hobby woodworkers, artisans and furniture builders throughout the state because of the selection of high-quality wood he sells.
Farmers and ranchers, however, are the company's biggest customers for juniper lumber, he said. They use it for fencing, vineyard trellises, stakes and planting beds. The wood is naturally durable, less expensive than many similar options and needn't be treated to prevent degrading—of particular interest to farmers who grow crops such as organic strawberries, lettuce and winegrapes.
"Juniper has unique properties, and when combined with an awareness of why landowners and forest managers are trying to clear the land of these invasive trees and find productive uses for the wood, it offers good reason to buy it," Almquist said.
Sustainably harvesting Western juniper creates much-needed jobs in rural communities where logging and wood production have traditionally been an important part of the economy, said Nick Goulette of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Trinity County. The nonprofit organization, based in Hayfork, helps communities transition into new business activities in the wake of logging restrictions.
The search for alternative business and job opportunities led Goulette to Modoc County, after he learned about the juniper removal work advocated by Sustainable Northwest. The Oregon-based natural resources nonprofit helps producers find ways to turn juniper wood removed for environmental reasons into useful products that appeal to urban consumers.
"There's a clear need on the land-management side to remove the trees," Goulette said. "We're focused on the business-opportunity side. Our vision is to use large amounts of juniper lumber for consumer and business products."
Goulette said Sustainable Northwest is moving into the Portland home improvement and building market with a campaign to promote the use of juniper. With success in that market, the organization wants to expand public awareness in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The experts have studied the environmental implications of removing Western juniper. They've researched market potential, prepared workers, developed products. The only thing missing now, they say, is consumer awareness of juniper's story and the willingness to buy it.
At a glance: Juniper trees and the greater sage grouse
Greater sage grouse are native to Western North America. However, invasive trees, raptors, wildfires and humans are threatening their future.
Farmers and ranchers in California and the West are working to clear invasive plants, including Western juniper, from habitat areas to protect the birds and other species that depend on healthy sagebrush ecosystems.
Juniper trees threaten natural habitat by crowding out brush and grass, reducing water filtration and increasing soil erosion. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management encourages selective removal of Western juniper trees to help restore this natural ecosystem.
Numerous universities and sustainable-resource organizations are working on ways to use juniper wood removed from the landscape for commercial and residential projects.
Western junipers rank as the fourth longest-lived tree species in the world. The giant bonsai-like Bennett juniper, located on a privately owned nature preserve within the Stanislaus National Forest in Tuolumne County, is the largest known juniper tree in America.
Information on heritage Western junipers is at www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/western-juniper.
More online: Where to buy juniper wood products