Kendall Derby rolls into Portland in a tan GM Sierra pickup truck, pulling a flatbed trailer full of hope and bother. It’s a load of landscape timbers Derby cut from gnarly western juniper trees, and he drove 170 miles from Fossil, the emptiest spot in rural Oregon’s bare economy, to sell them in the city of hipsters.
Derby, 53, is burly, bearded, holds a rangeland ecology degree from Oregon State University and runs a two-man sawmill called In the Sticks. He said a guy should be able to make a living milling the juniper that cattle ranchers and government agencies want removed from the landscape.
He wants to believe that. But the saw should be whining, the kiln should be humming and the phone should be ringing with orders and offers. Instead, the only sound is the wind gently flapping the plastic covering stacks of sawn timbers.
Winter’s coming on and he doesn’t have a juniper log deck to cut.
“One of the things that haunts me is, everybody that has tried juniper has gone under,” Derby said.
“Part of it is just hanging in there.” he said. “I come close to the edge pretty regularly.”
There is potential for a cascading economic and environmental impact that goes beyond Derby, a load of juniper and a struggling sawmill.
In much of the rural West, juniper sucks up water, crowds out sage and native grasses and provides perches for hawks and other predators. It’s an pervasive presence. Oregon alone has an estimated 9 million acres of juniper.
Wildlife biologists have identified the juniper infestation as one of the problems afflicting greater sage grouse, which is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2015.
If there is a market for juniper products, the thinking goes, ranchers and other landowners will cut more of it, which will improve habitat for greater sage grouse. In turn, that might keep the bird off the endangered species list. Which would be good for cattle ranchers, farmers, miners and energy developers in 11 Western states, who worry deeply about the restrictions and regulations that come with the ESA.
But that’s national issue stuff. The rise or fall of Derby’s juniper sawmill is a big concern locally. Wheeler County is Oregon’s least populated county, with more square miles, 1,713, than people, 1,430. Fossil, the county seat, has 475 people.
The county’s economy was knocked flat when the Kinzua mill closed in the late 1970s and hasn’t gotten back up.
The situation is such that June Rollins, owner of the Kountry Kafe in Fossil, has an informal arrangement with RJ’s, the restaurant across the street. Kountry Kafe serves breakfast and lunch, RJ’s serves lunch and dinner. That way, they split the trade between them.
Derby has one employee helping him. A couple jobs in Wheeler County, former county Judge Jeanne Burch said, are the equivalent of a couple hundred in Portland.
“Two jobs won’t turn the economy around, but it makes an impact,” said Burch, who was judge for 18 years. “Every dollar goes to the grocery store, to the gas station, to the restaurants.”
Selling juniper makes sense, she said. People in the county admire Derby for what he’s doing and wish him well, she said.
“It’s a bright way to go if he can just hang in there,” Burch said.
Ryan Temple, president of Sustainable Northwest Wood, arrives on a blue Salsa bicycle as Derby’s trailer is being unloaded,
The business, in Portland’s inner east side warehouse area, is a specialty lumber yard. It’s a for-profit spinoff of Sustainable Northwest, a non-profit that mediates environmental and rural economic concerns.
Sustainable Northwest Woods is the organization’s effort to “walk the talk,” Temple said. The business buys wood from 45 small Pacific Northwest mills such as Derby’s and sells to people looking for unusual decking, butcher block, fences, flooring, timbers, posts and other items.
Temple acknowledges the difficulty Derby and other rural producers face in reaching consumers.
“The reality of it is, the purchasing power exists in dense urban areas,” he said.
In October, Sustainable Northwest received a $65,000 USDA grant to certify western juniper’s structural characteristics. The testing will be done by Oregon State University and West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau. Certification is necessary to get broader use of juniper.
But even without certification, demand is not the problem.
Tamra Rooney, operations director for Sustainable Northwest Wood, said juniper sales are growing at 50 percent a year and will approach $500,000 in 2014. “We can sell juniper all day long,” she said.
Organic vineyards want juniper posts at the end of their rows of grapes, because juniper is naturally rot-resistant and doesn’t have to be treated with preservatives. Derby is filling an order of 800 posts for a new organic vineyard.
Meanwhile, parks departments and transportation divisions want juniper for signposts, guardrails and trail beams. The University of Washington ordered juniper timbers for a retaining wall.
The most unusual application may be in Sweden, where a distiller ages gin in barrels made from juniper staves cut by Derby.
Derby believes a lack of logging infrastructure is holding back the juniper market. Two other small Oregon mills cut juniper, but they’re also struggling to get logs.
Two Baker County men who have worked on the issue say large-scale juniper logging doesn’t appear feasible. Josh Uriarte, who splits time between the local Soil and Water Conservation District and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Logan McCrae, with the state Department of Forestry, say juniper is difficult to cut and de-limb.
Mechanized faller-buncher machines would make logging more efficient, but don’t do well cutting gnarly juniper, the men say. In addition, larger juniper trees usually grow at higher elevations, which are difficult to reach. A lack of roads in rangeland means logging trucks can’t get to where the trees are.
Many ranchers and land management agencies are cutting juniper, but are either letting them lie or burning them, Uriarte and McCrae said.
Derby, the juniper mill operator, acknowledges the difficulties cause him some sleepless nights. But he hasn’t fallen off the edge yet. For now, he’s an “artisan sawyer,” as he jokes, hauling loads to Portland.
“I don’t expect it to be easy,” he said, “but I expect it to be possible.”