News release: First loan from new fund will support Eastern Oregon mills, create jobs

The first loan from a new fund designed to speed the harvesting and processing of Western Juniper has been issued to a wood processor in central Oregon.

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The Western Juniper Industry Fund  (WJIF) was established by the Oregon Legislature in 2015 to provide economic assistance to wood processors in Central and Eastern Oregon in order to speed the harvesting and processing of Western Juniper. A native tree east of the Cascades, Western Juniper has overtaken rangeland and critical habitat in recent decades due to fire suppression efforts.

Because each Western Juniper tree can absorb up to 35 gallons of water a day, harvesting the tree provides environmental benefits and also creates much-needed jobs in rural communities, jobs that include the harvesters, millers and distributors of the wood and jobs in transportation and construction where and when Western Juniper is used.

Jim Epley of Spray, Oregon is one such miller. Epley began harvesting Western Juniper years ago as a necessity on his ranchand first considered the wood as scrap, pulling it up and burning it as he went. Later, he began turning the wood into general lumber to use around his own ranch — work that slowly grew into a small milling business harvesting and selling Juniper products in his hometown of Spray.

“Juniper is its own beast,” says Epley, “It’s extremely hard to work with, unpredictable to fall and requires an extraordinary amount of unmechanized labor.”

Because Juniper requires special effort to mill, Epley will use the Western Juniper Industry Fund loan to hire two new fulltime employees focused on harvesting and processing, expanding his business in the fast-growing market for Western Juniper wood.

Three years ago, the state of Oregon launched the Western Juniper Alliance to speed the harvest and processing of the wood. Since 2013, the market for Western Juniper has grown 20 to 30 percent each year, with demand for the wood increasing across Oregon and recently, in California.

Because Western Juniper is impervious to rot, naturally disease-free, and lasts for up to five decades, it requires no chemical preservatives. Because of this, it is starting to catch the interest of institutions and facility managers focused on health and sustainability. For example, Portland Public Schools has been using Western Juniper whenever possible for outdoor use in school garden beds and new playground installations.

“I was drawn to Juniper for its beauty, the fact that it’s non-toxic and that harvesting it helps restore natural habitat,” said Nancy Bond, Resource Conservation Coordinator for Portland Public Schools, “I’ve been recommending it for every new facilities project requiring wood at PPS.”