Scott Leavengood, director of the Oregon Wood Innovation Center, began his career at Oregon State twenty three years ago as a Klamath County extension agent. Back then, he answered many phone calls from county residents asking what they could do with their western juniper trees.
The wood is strong and durable, and extremely common in Eastern Oregon.
Due to changes in land management practices, wildfire suppression in particular, western juniper acreage in the western United States has increased dramatically in the past 100 years. Thinning juniper stands helps restore rangelands and habitats for animals like the sage grouse, but until recently, there’s been no practical application for the use of this resilient and durable wood species.
“A lot of people were interested in using western juniper in building projects, but for use in structural applications, engineering design values have to be published,” Leavengood says.
Throughout the years, inquiries about western juniper continued, but there were no funds to study juniper-based materials and their market potential until 2015.
USDA Rural Development, the Oregon Department of Transportation and Business Oregon provided funding for juniper testing. Sustainable Northwest managed the project and graduate student Byrne Miyamoto stepped in to do the legwork for the project including small-scale bending, compression and shear tests.
“I spent the entire first summer of the project in the wood shop just cutting samples and making sure there were no defects,” Miyamoto says.
Juniper is a species often riddled with knots and imperfections, making the work difficult, but Miyamoto and Leavengood prevailed and testing was conducted in the summer of 2016. A few durability tests will continue in years to come.
“I have some posts set up in Yaquina Bay in Newport, so we’ll see how well it holds up there and if shipworms attack it,” Miyamoto says. “We examine the samples one a year, and so far we have not seen any attack.”
The results of the western juniper certification project will be published in the National Design Specification in 2018.
“Many key market opportunities couldn’t exist for juniper without published values,” Leavengood explains. “We think that the ability for engineers to use juniper for things like sign posts and guardrail posts will have implications for everything from land management to job creation.”
Miyamoto is focusing on finalizing the focus for his Ph.D. research at Oregon State this fall, and he looks forward to seeing western juniper in use someday soon.
“I’ve spent two years of my life coming up with five values that engineers will be able to use to decide if juniper can be helpful in their projects,” he says. “I’ve spent a lot of time with my juniper samples in the lab, but soon I hope I’ll be able to see the values we produced in use and say, ‘that was me.’”