The western juniper reigns over a limited domain but within that domain it reigns supreme. The heart of this realm is Grant County Oregon and it stretches to encompass most of eastern Oregon with a few excursions into neighboring states. According to the Oregon State University juniper factsheet \"Within the last 150 years or so, the population and acreage covered by western juniper has increased three- to ten-fold.\" Old photographs show that these hills which are now throughly colonized by junipers were completely treeless in pioneer times.
These trees, along with the sagebush and the cottonwood are the vegetation which give eastern Oregon its uniquely western look and feel.
Sadly for this region, In spite of being increasingly abundant, it is of little use. It is occasionally used for fenceposts and firewood and in earlier times crude barns and pole buildings were framed with it. But due to the way the tree grows, the juniper is almost completely useless as a source of lumber.
The problem is that, in spite of being tough flexible and fairly hard for a softwood, The twisted grain and frequent voids make it extremely difficult to get any usable timber out of even a fairly large tree.
To make matters worse, nothing grows in the shade of the juniper. The more juniper growing on a piece of ground, the fewer grazing animals that ground can support.
They do not even make good Christmas trees. If you look closely at this picture, you can see shiny droplets clinging to the needles of this juniper. These sparking drops are resin not dew. This abundance of resin makes them so strongly aromatic that the smell is overpowering in any enclosed setting, rendering them unsuitable for Christmas trees in spite of their perfect shapes, needles that do not shed and decorative berries.
It is this resinous nature that creates the juniper's greatest weakness. Fire is the juniper kryptonite. Once these branches start burning the whole tree will go up in minutes like a huge torch. And once they have been burned, they never recover. It is possible that the fire suppression of the twentieth century is responsible for the extreme increase in juniper numbers.
Local craftsmen can use selected pieces of the wood to make pretty furniture. This can result in attractive and even dramatic furniture but it is never going to be the basis for any kind of large-scale business.
Wildlife and gin drinkers benefit from the berries. The trees produce abundant quantities of berries which support local bird populations. And in the last few years some local craft distilleries have begun to use the extract of these berries in speciality gins.;
Perhaps these unusual trees have a little lesson to offer us. They thrive where no other tree has any hope of survival. But in a forest setting where pines and firs, alders and hemlocks can each find a suitable niche, the juniper has no chance at all.
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