Photo contributed by Eric Sines
Like much of the high desert landscape across central and Eastern Oregon, the community of Ritter in rural Grant County is dealing with a scourge of unwanted Western juniper trees, crowding out native vegetation for wildlife and livestock.
In response, a collaborative group of landowners known as the Ritter Land Management Team recently purchased a small portable sawmill to turn the pesky plants into valuable lumber, while also providing much-needed jobs for the area.
The first juniper logs were milled at Ritter last week, and the team expects to sell the finished product to Sustainable Northwest Wood, a Portland lumberyard owned by the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest where juniper sales have jumped to 50 percent annually.
Patti Hudson, executive director of the Ritter Land Management Team, said harvesting juniper will not only help ranchers keep their land healthy and productive, but may revitalize the local timber industry in a new way.
“We eventually hope to have a number of people employed doing both the restoration work and the mill work,” Hudson said.
The operation is a prime example of what University of Oregon researchers are calling the “new natural resource economy” in Eastern Oregon, where entrepreneurs and small businesses are finding innovative ways to complement traditional farming and timber production.
A new study by the University of Oregon Community Service Center and School of Planning, Public Policy and Management details how natural resource industries are changing in Eastern Oregon, and how economic development groups — such as the Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corporation and Northeast Oregon Economic Development District — can support the sector moving forward.
The study lumps this subset of the economy into one of four general categories: agriculture, forest products, tourism and recreation. Businesses tend to be very small, and create non-traditional products such as biomass fuel and lumber from alternative sources like juniper.
Over the course of a year, researchers interviewed 42 businesses to gauge their needs and goals. The study area spanned 10 Eastern Oregon counties, including Umatilla, Morrow, Union, Wallowa, Gilliam, Wheeler, Grant, Baker, Harney and Malheur counties.
On Tuesday, members of the research team met with a group of about 20 people at the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton to discuss their findings. Susan Lurie, a research associate at the University of Oregon’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment, said the study was an opportunity to expand their understanding of what has happened to traditional Eastern Oregon industries, and define where the new natural resource economy is heading.
“It’s both defining it, and figuring out what these businesses need to thrive,” Lurie said.
Businesses raised a number of concerns in the study, ranging from complex government regulations to a lack of skilled and reliable workers. Participants at Tuesday’s meeting brainstormed ways to overcome those challenges locally, including pilot programs to engage students and compiling resources to navigate regulatory hurdles.
Susan Christensen, executive director of the Greater Eastern Oregon Development Corporation, said she sees collaboration as the key to success.
“To me, that means getting together partners that might not be the most obvious partners,” Christensen said. “The only way people learn about what the other person is doing is through communication and networking.”
The project in Ritter first took shape in 2013 when a group of about 30 landowners formed the Ritter Land Management Team, promoting sustainable development and environmental stewardship. Landowners soon identified the spread of Western juniper as one of the biggest threats to their farms and ranches.
Fully grown Western juniper can consume as much as 30 gallons of water a day, taking over rangeland and cutting into native forage. The trees are also susceptible to wildfire, exacerbating fire conditions on the range.
“It’s not just a range issue. It’s a forest health issue as well,” said Hudson with the Ritter Land Management Team. She noted that Western juniper can grow 30-40 feet tall in stands of ponderosa pine.
Last year, the team reached out to a consulting company based in California to determine if a juniper sawmill would be feasible. The final report showed that, within the total 105.650-acre study area, the group had enough juniper to feed the mill for 21 years.
The team was then able to tap into the Western Juniper Industry Fund, which was made available by the 2015 Legislature. The Oregon Community Foundation stepped up with matching funds, and a sawmill was finally delivered to Ritter about three weeks ago.
The mill is currently set up on the property of rancher Caleb Morris until they can find it a permanent home.
“We knew we had a lot of juniper, but we weren’t sure we had enough to keep the mill going,” Morris said. “But the study showed there’s at least a 20-year supply here, and more if we expand beyond the Ritter area.”
Hudson said juniper markets appear promising. Juniper wood is harder than ponderosa pine and highly resistant to rotting, which makes it ideal for landscaping.
Ryan Temple, president of Sustainable Northwest Wood, said they are looking forward to collaborating with the Ritter mill.
“Our customers will enjoy supporting the group’s rangeland restoration projects through the purchase of this lumber,” Temple said.
The biggest challenge, Hudson said, will be finding additional wood markets to ensure the mill can remain profitable.
“Everybody’s interested in juniper. A lot of people want it,” she said. “But we have to have a bigger market.”
However, she said the market is there and they are ready and willing to begin supplying logs.
“We’re optimistic we can make this work,” she said.
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-966-0825.