ENTERPRISE — At first glance, they look like ordinary evergreen trees: a little short, a little rotund, harmless enough. But junipers are opportunists of the highest order, gobbling up some of Wallowa County’s grassland and water resources at a fierce rate.
Now, thanks to the teamwork of range conservationist J. Johansen and 6 Ranch owner Liza Jane McAlister, the Natural Resources Conservation Service is dedicating more than $1.8 million to help landowners remove these native — but invasive — trees from 4,500 acres of Wallowa County’s private lands. The work started this week.
The 6 Ranch, just west of Enterprise, will be among the first landowners to take advantage of the new NRCS Ecological Function Restoration juniper treatment program. It’s a welcome and long-awaited opportunity for McAlister who has been looking for some help in juniper removal and wildlife habitat restoration for more than two decades.
The problem with junipers is that, absent fire and other controls, they expand their range exponentially. The stout, 20-40-foot tall trees trees suck up huge amounts of ground water —an estimated 2,000-4,000 gallons per acre, per day on the 6 Ranch — and shade out native shrubs and grasses. That creates a treed-up desert with a virtually impenetrable maze of lower branches, no understory plants and dry soils and springs.
“The trees have just sort of swallowed the steep slopes above the Wallowa River,” McAlister said. “When my great-grandparents owned the ranch, there were no junipers on that slope at all. I’ve been watching those trees invade the ranch and thinking what would happen if they caught on fire, especially in the hot, dry summer. It would be catastrophic,” she said.
That fire, she continued, would burn the ponderosa pine and fir and other species, burn so hot it would sterilize soils and lead to extreme erosion into the Wallowa River, with soil and ash muddying the water.
“It would be really bad for fish and all aquatic species,” she said. “It’s a nightmare.”
McAlister had asked for help from the Natural Resources Conservation Service beginning around 1998. But despite efforts from the local office, help in the form of a much-needed cost-share was never forthcoming because Rocky Mountain juniper had not been proven to be invasive, although the service had funded removal of another species, western juniper, in the rest of Oregon for years.
She decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I bought draft horses,” she said, “and thought I’d use them to pull the trees to the top of the slope, and just start pecking away at it.”
But in 2017 help arrived in the form of J. Johansen, a new soil conservationist at the Enterprise NRCS office. He started talking with several landowners, including McAlister, who wanted to control the juniper that was invading their rangeland.
But to provide cost-sharing for landowners in Wallowa County, Johansen had to prove that Rocky Mountain juniper was actually invasive here.
“We had an advantage in showing that junipers were a problem on the 6 Ranch because we’ve owned this land for 130-plus years,” McAlister said. “I have an oil painting that my great-great-aunt did in 1902 of this north-facing slope and there’s hardly a juniper on it then,” McAlister said.
Johansen found old USDA Soil Conservation Service aerial photos of the county from 1946, 1974 and 1992. They showed junipers were invading and overwhelming grasslands on the 6 Ranch and elsewhere.
With that clear evidence, the NRCS approved the conservation implementation strategy, allowing for cost shares here. Johansen mapped out the distribution of the problem trees, and the 4,500-acre Ecological Function Restoration juniper treatment area was born.
The 6 Ranch project began this week. It is the first of nine projects in Wallowa County.
Local foresters already have contracted for some of these projects. McAlister contracted with C&H Reforesters out of Salem. They will hand-fell the junipers and stack slash piles at the top of the slope. The pines, fir and riparian trees will remain.
What to do with all the wood from larger juniper trunks? The 6 Ranch bought a small sawmill, and plans to produce some boards, posts, poles and more, McAlister said. “We’ll use a lot of it on the ranch, but we might also have some for sale,” she said. “It’s like cedar. It’s a gorgeous wood.”
In addition to reducing fire danger and producing wood products, the 6 Ranch project also aims to improve wildlife habitat. Upland birds and the grasshopper sparrow, an increasingly rare grassland resident, should return. McAlister also anticipates the springs that once watered the slopes above the river will reappear when the junipers are gone.
“I think sometimes the unintended consequences of our actions – like fire suppression — throws nature out of balance,” McAlister said. “This project will give us the opportunity to restore that balance.”
She and the Natural Resources Conservation Service hope others will follow. For this year, the NRCS has funded 900 acres of juniper cutting and has 12 applications for the next round of cost-shares. The signup deadline for interested landowners is April 17.
One of McAlister’s most prized possessions is the painting her great-great aunt made of the ranch in 1902. It’s a scene looking at the steep slopes above the Wallowa River and the snow-capped mountains beyond. There is not a juniper tree to be seen.
“I’d like to restore it to what it was in her day,” McAlister said. “It might take us awhile to get used to looking at a more open slope. But that’s what the landscape on this piece of ground should look like.”