FOSSIL, Ore. — When you walk into Kendall Derby’s mill, the first thing you notice is the smell. It’s sharp and evergreen, like the high desert after a rain. But Derby doesn’t notice the smell of juniper.
‘People walk in here and they say oh, I love the smell. And I don’t have a sense of smell. Born without it. Never smelled it,” he laughs.
Derby runs In The Sticks sawmill on the outskirts of Fossil. It’s a mill dedicated to the bushy, short juniper tree.
Juniper boards and fence posts are stacked to the ceiling in a small warehouse and thick slabs with raw bark edges lean against the wall. Beetles have carved a filigree pattern into one of the slabs. Derby says he’ll sell it as a bench or a bar top.
“The target beast is one-by-six, two-by-six, six-by-six, different square lumber. But after you break a round log into square sticks you end up creating other stuff,” he says.
Derby wears suspenders and as he works he’s followed around by a friend’s yellow lab. He gets excited talking about the advantages of juniper. It has a fine, tight grain. For years ranchers have used it to make fence posts because it naturally resists decay. Best of all, it’s local and sustainably harvested.
“We’ve got millions of acres of this stuff. It’s not imported from Brazil, it’s not imported from Malaysia. It’s ours.”
Eastern Oregon has a juniper problem. Scientists say juniper have expanded their range in the high desert 10 fold since the 1870s.
“They’re not a weed, they’re a native plant that expanded beyond their historic range,” explains Brent Fenty, Executive Director of the Oregon Natural Desert Association. He says settlers inadvertently helped juniper to grow by putting out range fires and introducing hungry cattle.
“They’re not eating juniper, and that’s giving those juniper a competitive advantage into disturbed areas, where all those grasses are being eaten,” he says.
Fenty says small, scattered stands of juniper can provide shelter for deer and antelope and food for foraging birds, but in too many places, shrub steppe is switching into woodland.
That’s a problem in a landscape that gets barely more than a foot of rainfall a year.
Researchers have found that on a hot day, juniper trees with deep taproots can consume twenty-five gallons of water, although most juniper in eastern Oregon are getting by on much less.
Oregon Field Guide documented some of the original juniper research on the late Doc Hatfield’s ranch in this video.
The juniper’s thirst draws down streams and leaves less water for wildlife and native grasses. It’s a problem caught the eye of Martin Goebel, president of Sustainable Northwest.
“It is beginning to have a real water desiccating effect in the high desert of Oregon,” he says.
Goebel saw an opportunity for an environmental and economic win-win. Cutting juniper could help restore the shrub steppe grassland and create jobs. So he went to lumber wholesalers in Portland, asked them if they’d be willing to stock local, sustainable juniper.
“And most of the large warehouses said, ‘Oh, too small. Eh, we don’t really know those suppliers. mmn… too nitchy,’” Goebel says.
So the conservation organization opened its own for-profit warehouse in Portland, Sustainable Northwest Wood, to help people like Kendall Derby find a market for local sustainable wood.
Creating that new market hasn’t been easy. Juniper trees are generally short and knotty so Goebel says the key has been developing the right products — shavings for pets, posts for signs and fences. Portland company Neil Kelly Cabinet is experimenting with fine juniper cabinetry.
“It’s a challenging wood. It’s not that easy to love. It’s a tough love,” says Kendall Derby. His best customers are Portland gardeners who buy his chemical-free wood to build raised beds and planter boxes.
“See, the market is still trying to figure out what can work. Production-wise, sales wise, price wise,” he says.
There are supply challenges, too. Juniper often grows in remote areas with poor road access. And it can take forty or fifty stubby trees to fill up the back of a log truck. As a result, the wood is expensive to harvest and likely to remain a exotic product produced by small operations like In The Sticks, which has sold about 80 thousand board feet this year.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recently created an Oregon Solutions task force for juniper, to looking for ways to build a better supply chain, and to attract investors to the market.
Derby says business is still slow. He’s sunk his inheritance and his retirement savings into the mill and he isn’t making money yet. He says he feels a bit like the first person who brought a cow back to a cave and tried to milk it. But Derby is optimistic the market for juniper wood will grow.
“My dream is to have four or five guys here working. That’s four or five not minimum wage jobs. In a town of four hundred people that matters,” he says.
And Derby says it’s worth it, to be producing a product that doesn’t have environmental baggage attached, that helps restore the high desert landscape he loves.
Behind the mill, there’s a slope he cleared of juniper a couple years ago. Now the native grasses are so thick he feels like rolling in them.
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