Jack LeRoy held up a log-shaped object about a foot-and-a-half long, made of compressed wood chips, formed into a cylinder.

“I gotta tell ya, this is a fantastic fuel log,” he said.

And it is made of 100 percent juniper.

“If you look at traditional uses, if you look at traditional milling that we do for pine or Doug-fir or any other species,” LeRoy, of Forest Energy Group in Central Point, said, “you’d look at a juniper and go, ‘Why in the world would I want to touch one of those?’

“But the fact of the matter is there are some economics there, there are some things we’ve done with juniper.”

LeRoy hopes to expand Forest Energy Group with a mill in the Klamath area to process juniper and other small-diameter wood. That mill could provide as many as 14 jobs paying a living wage, not minimum wage.

He spoke to a dozen landowners (and two Klamath County commissioners) in Bonanza last week at an event put on by the Klamath Soil and Water Conservation District and the U.S. Department of AgricultureNatural Resource Conservation Service.

The goal of the meeting: give landowners who want to get rid of juniper access to programs to harvest the trees. And get them in contact with companies like LeRoy’s to do something with the wood.

The juniper problem

Klamath SWCD and the NRCS have worked on juniper removal in the county before. The tree is known in Oregon and across the West as a native plant growing out of control and sucking up water wherever it takes root.

Brian Quick, watershed coordinator with the Klamath SWCD said previously that during their growing phase, junipers use 20 to 30 gallons of water per day. Junipers stretch across nine million acres across the West, according to a PowerPoint presentation from Quick.

Only about 10 percent of today’s juniper existed before white settlement. In the past, juniper was regularly taken out by wildfires. The ones that survived did so by taking refuge on rocky outcroppings safe from the flames. But with ranching and wildfire suppression across the West, junipers have taken root in grasslands, pushing out other species of plants and wildlife.

LeRoy is part of the Western Juniper Alliance, an Oregon group working on the juniper problem. He said he’s aware of the “challenge of juniper encroachment.”

“We’re going to be part of the solution,” he said.

Juniper is just right

Though Forest Energy Group is based in Central Point, it has completed a project processing 5,000 green tons of juniper from Bureau of Land Management land. Those trees sat in the south-central Oregon sun for two years, drying out, before LeRoy took them.

“In working with juniper, one of the things that amazes me is how dry we can get it when it’s been felled and put on the desert out here,” he said. “The juniper we processed had sap for two years.”

After two years of drying, the material had 8 to 12 percent moisture, perfect for manufacturing for wood pellets and fuel logs. LeRoy said two-thirds of the cost in manufacturing those products is drying them.

“And here we have a product, that if it’s allowed to sit on the desert for two years, is at the perfect moisture content to process,” he said. “That’s a real advantage.”

To make the fuel log LeRoy brought to Bonanza, Forest Energy Group sent material to a plant in Iowa.

“A lot of people told us Juniper wouldn’t make a fuel log,” he said.

But it worked. And the sap in the juniper naturally held the log together.

“Usually when you look at a fuel log there’s wax or lignin or some other type of additive that’s added to it to hold it together. The natural oils that occur in juniper are holding this together,” LeRoy said.

“The one thing it’s got going for it, it’s 100 percent natural. That means a lot to a lot of people. It’s got a great juniper story that goes with it.”

And he said it burns relatively clean, with 0.3 percent ash. A wood pellet burning at 1 percent ash is considered premium, he said.

The right amount of juniper

To be able to make a mill work, LeRoy needs to know the wood will be available.

Though it would do other things like processing small diameter woods from forest control programs, juniper would be a big part of the mill’s operations. Aside from fuel logs juniper can make fence posts and sign posts and some very good quality wood can make cabinets.

“We need a number of acres that are planned to be treated,” he said. “We need to be able to see seven years of material available to us to justify the investment of coming over here.”

That’s where programs with the Klamath SWCD and NRCS come in. Landowners partner with the government organizations to harvest the wood. Then Forest Energy Group would take the wood to process it.

A yearly supply would be about 20,000 “bone-dry tons,” LeRoy said. It takes about 3,000 to 4,000 acres to make up 20,000 dry tons of juniper in the more dense areas in the region, said David Ferguson, NRCS district conservationist.

LeRoy sees his company fitting into the overall workings of the region to cut down the encroaching juniper.

“To us,” he said, “it appears everything is in a positive light.”