Projects and Stories

Western Juniper

We’re creating markets for this native invasive tree to restore grasslands and boost eastern Oregon’s economy.

Juniper covers the high deserts of the West. Photo by Marcus Kauffman.

Drive any direction east of the Cascades, and you’ll see them in the distance: tiny green and gray trees dotting the landscape, sprinkled sparsely in some areas, thick and densely forested in others. This is Western juniper, an innate part of the face of Oregon, an inherent part of the open range.

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 as much as ten-fold in parts of the state, with upwards of 9 million acres now present across eastern Oregon. A century of fire suppression, grazing practices, and climate change are among the factors contributing to juniper’s excess proliferation. Today it’s acting more like an invasive species than a native son, and it’s hurting the landscape, wildlife habitat, and the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.

The Keystone Ranch hillside in 1890 shows few juniper growing
The Keystone Ranch hillside in 1890 with a sparse juniper population

To combat these problems, Sustainable Northwest manages the Western Juniper Alliance (WJA), formerly known as the Western Juniper Utilization Group, an initiative launched by former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber in July 2013. Working with nearly 40 state and federal agency partners, business leaders, and non-profit organizations, the goal is to restore ecosystems in eastern Oregon through economic development. Removing invasive juniper will improve grazing conditions, increase water supplies, decrease wildfire risks, and restore habitat for sensitive species like sage-grouse and mule deer. And it has tremendous potential to create jobs, source innovative wood products, and serve as a plentiful resource for biomass energy.

The WJA is developing incentives to harvest more juniper and also creating jobs in juniper supply and market chains throughout the state. We’re networking harvesters, millers, manufacturers, engineers, retailers, and consumers to increase both supply and demand for this undervalued and underutilized wood species.  We’re cultivating new rural enterprises to strengthen the supply chain and promoting juniper’s benefits to consumers in the marketplace.  

These investments are already paying off. The WJA project currently supports several businesses, including all three major juniper sawmills in the state. We’ve increased the supply of high quality juniper by connecting landowners and federal agencies to loggers and millers for the first time. This means that more acres of juniper are being treated on public and private land, and wood products businesses have long-term inventory for growth and expansion.

Sustainable Northwest is proud to lead this effort. In the near future, we hope that you’ll be seeing a lot less juniper on the hillsides east of the Cascades, and a lot more juniper on the shelves at your local wood products retailer.

Project funding is a true public-private endeavor. We’d like to thank the Oregon State Legislature, Business Oregon, USDA Rural Development, and Oregon Community Foundation for their generous support of this project.

Project update

Business Oregon is accepting applications for the Western Juniper finance program. The Western Juniper Industry Fund Business Finance Program provides two types of financial assistance for Western Juniper businesses’ expansion projects: Capital Investment and Permanent Working Capital. Visit Business Oregon for more information and to apply.