USDA officials tour Portland juniper wood business

Rural economic development specialists from half a dozen states toured a Portland business that sells landscape timbers and other products cut from western juniper trees.

PORTLAND — Improving the market for western juniper wood products could result in a cascading effect that helps solve one of the west’s most vexing environmental problems, a touring group of USDA Rural Development directors learned Wednesday.

A combination of federal grants and public-private collaboration has created a burgeoning market for juniper products ranging from landscape timbers and signposts to decking, butcher block and siding. Half a dozen Rural Development state directors toured a Portland business, Sustainable Northwest Wood, to learn more about the Oregon project.

Tamra Rooney, director of operations for the business, 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.

Buyers like juniper for its strength and appearance, and it is naturally rot resistant and doesn’t have to be chemically treated. It’s proving popular as row end posts for organic vineyards, and the Portland Parks Bureau uses juniper posts as well, Rooney said.

“The word is really getting out,” she said.

Increased juniper sales could pay off in unexpected ways for rural producers.

Removing juniper — Oregon alone has an estimated 9 million acres of it — allows native sage and grasses to recover and improves habitat for greater sage grouse, which is up for endangered species consideration in 2015. Hawks and other sage grouse predators perch in western juniper trees, which also suck up prodigious amounts of water — up to 30 gallons a day, by some estimates.

If sage grouse are listed as endangered, it could bring severe grazing restrictions and regulations for western cattle ranchers.

A USDA grant announced in mid-October will pay for Oregon State University and the West Coast Lumber Inspection Bureau to certify juniper’s engineering values. Such certification is required before state agencies such as the Department of Transportation can use juniper posts for signs, guardrails and other uses.

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