PRINEVILLE, Ore. — Removing intrusive Western juniper trees from the landscape is the buzz among researchers, ranchers and government land managers.

Cutting juniper can improve greater sage grouse habitat, restore rangeland for grazing cattle and even provide jobs in struggling rural communities, the experts say.

John and Lynne Breese have a 30-year jump on them. In the draws and slopes outside Prineville, the Breeses have been cutting juniper since the late 1980s.

Walking a section of what’s called the Stump Puller Pasture, John Breese explains the rapid impact of cutting juniper. Trees on a 16-acre parcel of the pasture were cut a year-and-a-half ago and the branches trimmed and scattered as part of an on-going experiment.

“The object is to get the branches scattered so the sunlight will get to the ground and grass will grow,” Breese said.

Grazing cattle — “1,300-pound stompers,” he calls them — will grind juniper needles into the ground and release stored nitrogen.

“The whole point is to get this watershed functioning,” Breese said.

Native grasses are already thriving amid the debris of downed juniper. That will pay off when cattle come through.

“The direct benefit is the grazing we get out of it,” Breese said. “We can double and triple the animal unit months.”

Western juniper is such a water hog — Lynne Breese calls juniper a “thief” — that removing it has a nearly instant impact on the amount of water available for other plants and for stream flow. In a part of the state that gets by on 10 to 15 inches of precipitation a year, that’s significant.

A 10-year study in the Camp Creek drainage 60 miles southeast of Prineville compared two watersheds. On one, all juniper trees older than 140 years were removed; the other was not treated.

“We were able to show a response in a month,” said Tim DeBoodt, with Oregon State University Extension in Crook County. According to a published account, juniper removal increased the late season spring flow by 225 percent and increased the time in which monitors detected groundwater by an average of 41 days.

DeBoodt said the needles of mature juniper trees capture moisture. Snow or rain held in the needles either dribbles down the tree for its own use or evaporates.

For every 1 percent of the forest canopy that is juniper, the land loses 1 percent of moisture, DeBoodt said.

“If 20 percent of the canopy is juniper, 20 percent of the moisture never gets to the soil,” he said.

“Nine to 35 trees per acre can use all the water delivered to that site,” he said. “We have a lot of places where the (juniper) tree density is 50 to 200 trees per acre.”

Cutting juniper reduces soil loss to erosion tenfold, said DeBoodt, while forage production can increase six to 10 times per acre.

Juniper trees crowd out sage and provide perches for hawks and other predators that make life tough for sage grouse. As few as four juniper trees per acre can have a negative impact on sage grouse, DeBoodt said.

The problem with removing juniper is figuring out how to make the work pay for itself. Leaving the wood lay can add to the fuel load when wildfire sweeps through. Selling juniper logs to mills or cutting it for firewood can help offset the cost of clearing them, but that isn’t easy, either.

While urban lumber yards say they can sell all the juniper boards and posts they can get, the logging, milling and hauling infrastructure hasn’t kept up with demand.

For now, government grants help landowners, including Breese, offset the cost. Two bills signed by Gov. Kate Brown during this legislative session will make Oregon Lottery money available to solidify the supply chain, aid rural mills and develop markets.

“There’s not enough grant money in the world to do what has to be done,” Breese said. “Somehow it has got to pay its way.”

It’s important to Breese on a personal basis.

The extended family’s cattle and timber operation covers 8,000 acres and dates to 1888. John Breese was a high school science teacher but returned to the family property after his father died in the late 1980s.

The first thing that struck him was the sad state of the watershed and its diminished creeks. Breese said he discussed it with Lee Eddleman, a retired OSU range ecologist.

Instead of working along the creekbeds, Eddleman told him to start in the uplands, where the juniper grows.

“Fix the uplands and you’re going to win in the crick,” Breese said.

Removing juniper became his way of sustaining the family heritage.

“We’re not screwing it up on our watch,” he said.

Video available

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