Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Western Juniper: Loathed and Loved

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 46-48.

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Trees in the desert? Sure, along the streams (assuming no livestock). But evergreen trees? Yes—if the elevation, aspect, and soil are such that enough moisture is available, you'll likely find the western juniper (Juniperus occidentalis).

A tree of seemingly unlimited shapes, juniper can grow as a lone specimen or in stands thick enough to be classified as woodland (denser than a savanna, sparser than a forest). Usually short, it can grow more than 60 feet high. The oldest junipers can approach 5 feet in diameter and exceed a millennium in age.

Juniper's distinctive fragrance comes from the needles (rub some on your hands as an all-day reminder). Juniper "berries" are actually a nonwoody cone and may be eaten (while edible, they aren't particularly tasty and are better left for the birds). They are remindful of gin, which is flavored by European juniper varieties. (Bendistillery [sic] makes a locally flavored gin. Tanqueray it is not, but it is fine with tonic water and a lime.)Junipers have gender. Only the female trees have "berries."

Junipers live on less water than other trees and are often found between the slightly higher ponderosa pine forest and the slightly lower sagebrush steppe.

Though juniper is an extremely slow-growing wood, the timber industry is seeking ways to exploit the species. It is a pretty and enduring wood (juniper fenceposts have been known to outlast two post holes), but since it grows so slowly, any serious logging is nothing less than tree-mining. With the advent of new technologies to successfully exploit juniper wood, watch out.

To most ranchers, the juniper is the sylvan coyote. They view it is an invading weed, killer of springs and streams, reducer of biodiversity, eroder of soils, and degrader of forage quantity and quality for both wildlife and livestock. Some ranchers contend that the roots of a juniper tree extend halfway to the next juniper.

Because of these misconceptions and the fact that western juniper is presently expanding in its range, ranchers and their handmaidens in government favor aggressive "management." Burn it, spray it, log it, or otherwise kill it to make room for more forage for more livestock. While juniper is expanding in range, many of the oldest trees have been and are continuing to be lost to development. One Oregon specimen was found to be 1,700 years old.

Scientists aren't sure why juniper is spreading, but the tree-ring studies suggest that the species' range expands and contracts because of climate variations. Other factors are the exclusion of fire and the intrusion of livestock. In a natural desert, the bunchgrass was tall and fire was frequent. Periodic fire, carried by the bunchgrass, killed most of the tiny juniper seedlings. But now livestock eat up grass and humans put out fires, giving the juniper seedlings an unnatural break.

Grassland ecologist Dr. Joy Belsky, while on staff with the Oregon Natural Resources Council (she's now with the Oregon Natural Desert Association), examined common beliefs about juniper and compared them with the available science. Among her conclusions:

In spite of the conviction that junipers are degrading western rangelands and wildlife habitat, there is little or no experimental evidence suggesting that this is so or that juniper control will (1) increase water yield to springs and streams, (2) increase water infiltration, (3) reduce erosion, or (4) improve fish and wildlife habitat. It is probably safe to predict that tree removal will increase the productivity of understory shrubs and herbaceous plants, including, in some case, the productivity of undesirable weedy annuals and shrubs. The trade-offs need to be recognized and analyzed. [1]

Modern sensibilities force ranchers and bureaucrats to now mask their arguments against juniper (and for livestock) behind claims that juniper removal is good for watershed and biodiversity protection. In fact, this type of juniper management is predicated on the belief that the ecosystem exists only to benefit livestock. If serious about healthy watersheds and biodiversity, public land managers would banish the bovine and bring back the blaze.

Unfortunately, the juniper cannot run like a coyote.

1. Belsky, A. Joy. "Viewpoint: Western Juniper Expansion: Is It a Threat to Arid Northwestern Ecosystems?" Journal of Range Management 49 (1996): 53-59.