Ranching, Timber, Industry and Conservation Converge to Form Working Lands to Preserve Oregon Ranches

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Working Lands announces an unprecedented statewide collaboration between ranchers, farmers, timber, business, conservation and government groups is underway this June to manage juniper and guard the land, protect the threatened sage grouse species, and preserve Oregon’s ranch industry.

An unprecedented statewide collaboration between ranchers, farmers, timber, business, conservation and government groups is underway to manage juniper, guard the land, protect the threatened sage grouse species while preserving Oregon’s ranch industry.

Drive onto John O'Keeffe's Southeastern Oregon ranch and you’re pretty sure you’ve just stepped to a western movie set. This is the open rangeland that drew homesteaders to Oregon in the 1800s. Mountain peaks in the distance solidified this land as Western ranch gold and settlers fought for their stake in a new ranch economy.

From the Irish Sheepmen settlement to the transition to cattle country of today - this is the land of ranching legends.

In recent decades, however, a modern western drama is unfolding. Changes in fire return intervals that come with settlement have allowed juniper to dominate and then take over the sage brush landscape. What was once a seamless part of the landscape has been encroaching aggressively over the last century and now threatens Oregon ranches, including the O'Keeffe's. Left unchecked, native Western Juniper will continue to take over an entire ecosystem drinking up a precious water supply in volumes.

Ranchers and scientists agree: Oregon’s rangeland habitat is being compromised and our state’s “working lands” along with it. To mitigate it, an unprecedented statewide collaboration between ranch, farm, timber, business, conservation and government groups is managing juniper and guarding the land, protecting the threatened sage grouse species, and preserving Oregon’s ranch industry.

Across the state, efforts like this are underway to support the hardworking industries that Oregon is known for – timber and agriculture. These industries are part of our vital livelihood economically and therefore must be maintained in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way to ensure they exist forever. Many of these efforts, including much of the tremendous work of the Western Juniper Alliance in Central and Eastern Oregon, are occurring on Working Lands. Working Lands protect the land without taking it out of production, optimizing the ecological and economical value of the land.

Juniper Rising
When O'Keeffe was growing up, the landscape looked different. He recalls looking across miles of open rangeland with few trees in sight. “It's a slow but steady process,” says O'Keeffe. “You might not see it day to day, but it gets your attention and over time, it makes a difference.”

Today, across central and eastern Oregon, Western Juniper is turning ranches into small, dry forests and, in effect, sterilizing the ground. In the heat of summer, a single juniper tree can draw up to 35 gallons of water a day, killing off native grasses. Although it is a native Oregon plant, never before has Western Juniper taken up so much space. In 1934 these trees covered roughly one million Oregon acres. Today, over seven million acres of juniper cover the high deserts of Oregon.

Declining Sage Grouse
Ranch land overtaken by juniper means less beef for consumers and less income for ranchers. There is another victim in this tale: the greater sage grouse. Juniper proliferation and associated changes in rangeland health have caused a 60 percent decline of the grouse over the past 45 years.

Specifically, the plant and invasive grasses have taken over open prairie nesting and brood-rearing areas, compromising 21 percent of original sage grouse habitat.

A Working Lands Solution - Immediate Results
In 1986, O'Keeffe started treating his Western Juniper in a few key areas of his ranch, but it was quite an effort to keep up alone. In the mid nineties, he began to work with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) to help treat certain affected areas.

Since 2007, work crews with NRCS, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Lake County Watershed Council have cut and flattened 4,000 acres of invasive juniper on 14,000 acres of the O'Keeffe property, effectively controlling juniper encroachment and returning the land to its historic condition.

In 2010, NRCS created an experimental and strategic conservation effort to help many other ranches with similar issues. The NRCS initiative assists ranchers in voluntarily restoring 200,000 acres of rangeland over five years, combating sage grouse habitat loss and ensuring viability of Oregon ranching.

“Juniper control is only one benefit of ranches on the landscape,” says O'Keeffe. “For years ranchers have been controlling noxious weeds, putting out fires, developing water sources, maintaining the numerous private parcels in an undeveloped state, simply by going through their day to day activities on the landscape. Truly a win-win."

Visit O'Keefe's property today, and the results are impressive.

“O’Keeffe saw the same issues threatening sage grouse also undermining the long-term sustainability of his ranch,” says Max Corning, USDA-NRCS District Conservationist for Lake County.

“It feels great to get your ranch back,” O'Keeffe proudly states. He’s also eager to point out greater sage grouse nesting.

The ranch is once again wide open, with healthy sage grouse habitat, meadow grasses and wildflowers blooming. O'Keeffe's specific knowledge and management of his ranch’s ecosystem has made him a valuable partner to all parties.

“As ranchers, we know our land intimately. We wake up every morning thinking about it -- our lives depend on it. We constantly make decisions that keep the landscape whole and undeveloped while adding to the overall health and habitat of our region and the ranch.”

O'Keeffe has led the way for other cautious ranchers to get involved, resulting in more than 28,000 acres of Western Juniper removal in this sage grouse stronghold in Lake County. The BLM-Lakeview District removed 30,000 acres of juniper on public lands in a partnership effort to make this a contiguous landscape scale effort to enhance sage grouse habitat on the east slope of the Warner Mountains.

Economies Found
But this saga doesn’t end with the removal of Western Juniper to the sole benefit of grouse and cattle. Instead, an entirely new Oregon industry is being built on juniper harvests to improve rangeland health.

Removing Western Juniper has created jobs in rural communities across eastern Oregon. Currently Oregon businesses employ over 40 full time and seasonal employees to harvest and mill juniper – an incredibly useful and stunning wood.

Portland-based cabinetmaker Neil Kelly is purchasing the resource along with other local vendors. Sustainable Northwest Wood supplies restoration juniper, sourced from grassland restoration projects in Oregon, for indoor and outdoor timber, decking and countertops. Juniper was even selected as both an exterior and interior paneling material in a recently built Portland-area Panera Bread store, working with Hubbard-based Trillium Pacific Millwork and Portland-based Nine Wood.

“The fact that we can make beautiful cabinets and furniture, save ranch land, protect sage grouse habitat and put people back to work at the same time means everyone wins. It is the right thing to do,” says Tom Kelly, CEO of Neil Kelly.

From a foodie perspective, juniper berries are a key ingredient in local gin distillery production for Bendistillery and the rot resistant juniper wood is becoming fence posts for A to Z Wineworks in the Willamette Valley and Kiyokowa Orchards in Parkdale in the Gorge, to name just a few.

Juniper removal has other substantial effects on Oregon. By keeping the juniper clusters in check, Central Oregon is able to reduce the threat of serious wildfires.

“For generations, my family has witnessed the slow advance of juniper,” said O'Keeffe. Working with Sage Grouse Initiative, NRCS and the BLM is giving him hope. “It’s been great to see the rangeland come back, protect the sage grouse and create a new juniper industry. It set us up to leave this land in a lot better shape than we found it and to pass that on to the next generation.”

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Karen Werstein
Grady Britton
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Karen Werstein