Deep in the heart of eastern-central Oregon is some of the most breathtaking high desert landscape in the country. This is where Western Juniper calls home and where I had the immense pleasure of touring some of the juniper sawmills and getting to know the sawyers we work with. I left with a much deeper understanding and appreciation of what it takes to get this amazing wood into our lumberyard. In this three-part series, I’ll take you on my journey to connect to the people and the land, and gain a sense of place in Juniper Country.
First, a little back story: Western Juniper, Juniperus occidentalis, is an evergreen conifer that is native to Oregon, but years of fire suppression have allowed an explosion of the population, growing from a territory of about 1 million acres to 7-10 million acres. This native has become invasive. Once pristine grassland and prairies are now overrun with juniper and dozens of the marked creeks on the drive along the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway were dry as a bone. One of these thirsty trees soaks up 25-30 gallons of water a day in an already parched region. The result is devastating the watersheds and drying up the tributary creeks that feed the John Day River, threatening salmon, the Greater Sage Grouse, and other wildlife, not to mention the humans that live in the area. I knew that the invasion of juniper is a real problem here, but seeing the effects first hand was startling. If water is life, this area is in critical condition.
In response to the proliferation, the non-profit and our parent company, Sustainable Northwest, helped forge The Western Juniper Alliance, bringing together government, civic leaders, non-profit organizations, land owners and businesses to address the issues and create solutions that have a positive impact on the environment, while boosting the economy of the surrounding rural communities hungry for work. The impact to the watershed after removing juniper is profound and almost immediate. Within a month of cutting juniper from along the creek beds, pools of water appear where there was none. Within a year, the grasses grow lush again, and signs of wildlife return.
Among the reasons Sustainable Northwest Wood exists is to support small mills in rural areas. We are the retail outlet for about a dozen juniper sawmills throughout Oregon, selling the products they produce and creating markets throughout the Pacific NW and beyond. These juniper sawyers are turning an ecological problem into an opportunity and are now cutting lumber instead of firewood. Granted, a fair amount of it still ends up as firewood, but the bulk of the logs become landscaping lumber that significantly longer lasting than its counter parts cedar and redwood. Only about 10% of the logs that are harvested make the #1 grade to become the beautiful juniper decking, flooring, siding, wall paneling, and butcher block countertop material we have available at our shop. My quest was to see what it takes to go from log to lumber.
First stop: In the Sticks Juniper Mill located in Fossil, Oregon. And it truly is “in the sticks.” Fossil is about three hours from Portland, a drive through steep, rugged canyons that are a geologist’s dreamland, past acres of wind farm turbines, rolling hills and jaw dropping vistas. It is home to more mule deer than people. In some stretches of the drive, I saw more bald eagles than cars. It is a tiny town of about 450 people, which is the same size town I grew up in Kentucky, where everyone knows everyone, and most people scratch together a living by juggling at least a couple jobs.
Owner, sawyer, and entrepreneur, Kendall Derby, lights up when he sees me and greets me with a warm welcome. He has a Hoss Cartwright quality about him, with an infectious smile and an unassuming demeanor. He’s an epic storyteller and draws you in with tales that always begin with “Oh, I’ve got a good story for you…”
Kendall has a long history in the industry. He grew up with a dad in the Forest Service, so his play grounds were state and national parks. Born in New Hampshire, his formative years were spent in Kentucky in the Daniel Boone National Forest, which is my neck of the woods, and the Sierra Mountain range in Nevada. It was in the Sierras that he first realized he was in love with the mountains. A love not unlike how he loved his own mother. A love like what he came to find with his wife, Amy. The mountains are a part of who he is. And I was deeply moved by the connection.
He was introduced to his wife Amy by a mutual friend and after 18 years together, they operate like a well-oiled machine, tending to the farm chores, feeding the chickens and mucking the horse stalls at the end of their work day. Amy works for Oregon State University as the Wheeler County Extension Agent. She’s just returned from a leadership retreat with more than 100 teens involved in the 4-H program. She and Kendall have hosted 4-H Urban Exchange students over the years in an effort to bridge a very real rural–urban divide, and give youth in both areas a chance to understand natural resource management issues, and walk a mile in the other’s shoes.
Kendall was a late bloomer, earning a degree from OSU in Rangeland Ecology & Management at the age of 27. He’s both an environmentalist and a realist. He has a deep understanding of the rural rancher. He hunts. He fishes. He’s on the planning committee for Wheeler County, the poorest county in the state. He spent a number of years in the Forest Service until an entrepreneurial itch just had to be scratched.
In 2004, Kendall milled his first log from a piece of land he purchased as a timber sale in Dayville, Oregon. He intended to log the timber and sell half of it to high end furniture makers. He chuckles at his first “failed idea.” But the love for the work stuck, and in 2007 he moved his milling operation to its current location in Fossil. He runs a computerized wood-mizer sawmill, which is high tech in comparison to some of the other mills I would visit. He cuts a log into a 6x6 landscape timber in a matter of minutes without touching it. He has a kiln for drying lumber, which is a definite competitive advantage, and adds significantly value to his offerings. He offers a drying service to other sawmills in the area, which also helps boost his sales.
He currently has two employees and is looking to hire at least a couple more. But with a population of 450 people and a median age of 63, there simply isn’t a pool of qualified people to hire to run the mill. He muses about ways to keep the next generation in the county to improve the workforce. In 2018, Fossil High School had a graduating class of three. Yes, THREE. And the young people are not staying. There’s simply not much to keep them here.
Aside from the workforce, running a juniper sawmill has the additional obstacles of the rural location, which hampers shipping the product, high equipment costs, low margins, and a largely unexplored product. He’s seen a dozen mills start up and fail. He’s come close a couple times himself. But still he persists. He wears all the hats: mill owner, sawyer, marketing, sales, blog writer, web master, mechanic, purchaser, and the customer service guy who helps the local furniture maker find the perfect slabs of juniper in between answering my relentless questions. It occurs to me that he has to be weary. I asked him, “Why do you do it, when it’s so hard to make it?” I thought I saw a little mist in the corners of his eyes as he spread his hands toward the hills and said “This.”
Tucked away in the basement of the Gardeners and Ranchers Building in industrial SE Portland is the shop of one of our favorite craftsmen, Josh Aguiar, the owner of A Joint Effort. The building itself is filled with creatives and makers of all kinds, and the place is buzzing with the sounds of machinery and the smell of sawdust. I meandered through the dimly lit hallway to find his space with a Sasquatch sticker plastered on the door, a clear sign that this was going to be fun.
Peeking inside, the space is filled to overflowing with stacks of wood, tools, piles of cutting boards in various stages, finished projects and some in mid-stream. The room feels alive with activity. I am greeted by Maxwell, Josh’s helper that has been a family friend he was a little kid and joined the team in 2017. Josh welcomes me with a warm smile behind a dusty beard. He is somewhat shy, openly regretful about the condition of his shop and wishing out loud that he’d cleaned up a little more for me. I grew up under the feet of a carpenter, and the sight, sound and smell of his shop flood me with fond memories. I assure him it’s perfect just like it is.
I’ve only been with Sustainable Northwest Wood about 8 months, so I’m curious about our customers, what they do, and how they work. This is my first shop visit and I’m like a kid in a candy store taking it all in. I start asking a flurry of questions that are burning my curiosity. Josh is humble and thoughtful with his answers, and at moments beaming with pride.
Josh got his start in woodworking at 18 in a cabinet shop in his tiny home town of Tonganoxie, Kansas. He moved to Portland at 21 and never looked back. In his mid-twenties, he was fortunate enough to land an apprenticeship with the legendary wood sculptor, Leroy Setziol, who was one of the Northwest’s most accomplished wood artists. Leroy gave him a piece of Western Red Cedar to work with as his first project. Apparently, it was good enough for the work to continue, and Josh spent the next two years learning from the master. He left a lifelong impression on Josh’s work and instilled in him the philosophy of “Do your own thing. Be your own man.” He shows me a stunning piece made of myrtle, beautifully chip carved into a table. It takes my breath away and I can see that he is proud of it. His soul is hungry for more commissioned work like this, but his bread and butter are the cutting boards he sells at Portland Saturday Market. When compared to his passion for carving, he’s somewhat dismissive of the stacks of cutting boards gracing his shop. These are amazing little pieces of art made from local walnut that he helps mill from salvaged trees, combined with myrtle, madrone and maple that he hand-selects from our lumberyard. Every piece is unique, one of a kind and finished to a buttery surface that I can’t help but touch. He uses a blend of walnut oil and beeswax to seal each piece, sometimes enlisting his kids to help with this part of the process. It’s an all hands on deck family business, especially around the holidays when they are cranking out hundreds of beautiful cutting boards.
I asked Josh what’s the hardest thing he’s had to learn. He thought for just a moment, chuckled and said “Sales.” I can see him squirm just a little, unsure of his own charm, and can imagine the introvert in front of me struggling to put on that sales hat. He tells me his son, Cypress, (yes, the woodworker named his kid after a tree) is a natural, so he puts him in charge of running his booth at the Market while he cranks out more product at the shop.
When I stop by his booth at Portland Saturday Market the next day, it is bustling with activity. He’s right – Cypress is a natural salesperson, charismatic, knowledgeable and pretty dang adorable. I spend some time browsing the amazing selection of one of a kind pieces on display before making the agonizing decision of which one is coming home with me. As it turns out, it’s impossible to buy just ONE.
On a misty morning in late October, this tree hugger got her fix in a BIG way in the Valley of the Giants. Getting to this magical, mystical place is much more challenging than the actual trail itself. It requires driving many winding miles of rugged logging roads, across private and public lands, through clear cuts and second growth timberland, to this amazing swath of old growth forest that is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Located in a remote part of the coast range in western Oregon, near the ruins of the abandoned logging town of Valsetz, this 51-acre forest preserve is protected by the Bureau of Land Management and is designated as an Outstanding Natural Area. It truly is that.
The day’s educational adventure was organized and led by members of the Build Local Alliance, who invited forest management experts and co-authors of the book Ecological Forest Management, Debora and Norman Johnson, to walk and talk with us along the way. We made several stops on the caravan style drive to the trailhead to observe and discuss the vast differences in forest management practices.
We arrived at the trailhead, dizzy from the bumpy drive but excited to get our eyes on what we had come all this way to see. Only a short distance into the woods, the first sight of one of these giants was enough to stop me in my tracks, slack jawed, wide eyed as a child. I’ve never seen trees like this since my time with the Redwoods.
As we stood under the canopy of some of the tallest trees in Oregon, Debora Johnson pointed out the layers of the forest in the understory of salmonberry, Oregon grape, devil’s club, sword ferns and vine maple that play a vital role in a healthy forest ecosystem. Towering nearly 300 feet overhead, the canopy of massive Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock was astounding. With trees estimated to be about 500 years old, this stand of old growth forest was teeming with life, rich in biodiversity and stood in stark contrast with the moonscape eeriness of the clear-cut land we had walked earlier in the day.
This area gets close to 200 inches of rainfall a year, and the result is a lush landscape, dripping with moss, lichen, and a variety of fungi, palpably alive. I could hear my colleagues and their breathless chorus of “Wows” ringing through the forest as we descended the trail toward the river, completely awe struck.
We stopped for lunch with the roar of the Stilez River in the background, while engaging conversations ensued around the topics of climate change, wildfires, Oregon state law regarding logging practices, economics vs environment, the secret life of fungi, and who packed the best sack lunch. This was an outing with people of all walks of life and interests, from toddlers to retirees, forest land owners to hobbyist wood workers, and the diversity of the people made for unique perspectives on the variety of topics that bubbled up throughout the day. As the day waned and the adventure came to a close, I walked away from this Walk in the Woods feeling an awe that only the ancients can inspire and deep gratitude that this Outstanding Natural Area will be preserved for generations to come.
Before visiting the Valley of the Giants, be sure to call the Bureau of Land Management in Salem 503.375.5646 to get information about logging road conditions, closures, and directions and print this handy BLM Map for detailed directions to navigate to this remote location that is more that worth the effort to find.
In the world of urban lumber, most wood from tree removal is turned into firewood or mulched. For a long time, I had assumed most logs harvested in industrial forestry were turned into lumber. It turns out that a lot of wood from logging projects doesn't make grade for various reasons and is sent to the pulp mill and turned into chips for paper.
In the fall of 2015 my business partner Mark and I went to a pulp mill between Detroit Lake and Salem Oregon. We heard rumors that mixed in among low grade pulp logs one could find some awesome oversized wood. In short, an exciting treasure hunt! Up to this point, we had been spending an average of 4-6 hours on urban tree removals getting one or two logs at a time. Having 20 or 30 logs on hand seemed like a proper log deck to us.
Upon arrival, we came face to face with the sheer volume of logging that goes on in Oregon alone. Giant front loaders unloaded whole log trucks in one scoop. Log decks were piled 20 feet in the air that went on as far as the eye could see. The mill or should I say wood shredder aka log eater, churned nonstop, grinding log truck loads of wood into chips in record time.
In and among the piles of wood, we saw 48" plus diameter old growth fir logs and huge decks of big leaf maple. How could this be? Chipping old growth fir? Upon closer inspection, we found defects like white speck, root rot, and excessive ring shake. A lot of mills have also retooled to cut smaller logs and actually don't want large, old growth logs.
After a frenetic and excited romp around the piles of wood, Mark and I decided to buy a 40" diameter big leaf maple log. It was probably 30 feet long and we had to trim off the end so it could fit on the trailer! Getting it off the trailer with an underpowered front loader proved to be quite a challenge as well!
Cutting and stacking the slabs was a lot of work. Our equipment struggled to load the log as it weighed 10,000 pounds. Pulling each slab off the mill took some ingenuity, leverage and sheer physical exertion. After a day and a half, we had an amazing stack of 18' long big leaf maple slabs!
Fast forward a few years and the next step I had been dreading arrived: Surfacing all of the wood. From one end of the stack to the other between the planing machine took about 70 feet. Over and over as we ran the slabs through the machine, revealing the amazing color and art of nature. There wasn't much time to appreciate all this as I had to repeatedly muscle each slab off the outfeed table onto a forklift.
Eventually, we won the battle, bringing in one slab at a time into the Epilogue showroom at Sustainable Northwest Wood. Three years after starting this harrowing task, the wood is finally for sale!
For the pulp mill, selling one log to a couple of guys with a small flatbed and trailer is pretty much a nuisance. But as Mike, the mill manager said, "God didn't grow that tree to be turned into toilet paper!" We tend to agree and think you will too!
One of my favorite events of this first annual Sustainable Building Week was the Happy Hour Hike with the Build Local Alliance. Led by Forest Conservationist Michael Ahr and BLA co-founder and forest owner Peter Hayes of Hyla Woods, this educational stroll through Forest Park, got us out of the office and into nature on a rare sunny October day in Portland.
Forest Park is one of the country's largest urban forest reserves with 5200 acres and more than 70 miles of trails. It is home to more than 112 species of birds, 62 mammal species and a diverse smattering of vegetation, grasses, shrubs and trees. Our guides led us on a hunt to locate and identify the prominent native Northwest tree species in the park including Douglas fir, western hemlock, western red cedar, as well as smaller populations of big leaf maple, black cottonwood, grand fir, Oregon ash, Oregon white oak and western yew. We discussed the features and benefits of the lumber that comes from these trees, how it is used, the ecological and economical significance of each species. A wood geek and forest lover's dream.
We stopped to admire the tallest tree in the park, an impressive Douglas Fir estimated at over 240' tall and 18' in circumference. As we stood on the trail soaking up the magnificence of this ancient beauty, breathing in the lush landscape, and being lulled by the babbling Balch Creek nearby, Peter Hayes introduced us to the concept of Shinrin Yoku - a Japanese term for "taking in the forest atmosphere" or "forest bathing." Many of us intuitively understand the benefits of being in nature, but recent scientific studies prove the healing effects of simply spending time in under the canopy of a living forest. Reduced stress, lower blood pressure, increased energy and focus, improved mood, and better sleep are among several noteworthy benefits of forest therapy.
The concept of Forest Bathing is not a new one. Developed in Japan in the 1980s, it has become a cornerstone of preventive health care and healing in Japanese medicine. It is surely the cornerstone of my own health and well-being, even if I didn't have the cool word for it before this outing. Almost immediately upon putting my boots on the path, I can feel the physical and psychological effects as my mood shifts and my mind goes from chaos to calm. About 15 minutes in, I hit that ahhhhhhh moment. As I take a deep breath, inhaling the aromatherapy of cedar, fir and moss, I can feel my body relax as I breathe out the stress of a hectic, bustling life. Leaving behind the world to take pause and simply look at the color patterns on an autumn leaf or notice the sensation of the trail beneath my feet, to stop and listen to the sounds of nature, feels transformative.
Humans have been aware of the connection between green spaces and health since 19th Century, which could explain the development of so many city parks during that time. Donald Macleay originally deeded the city of Portland a portion of the land that we stood on to provide a public park and an outdoor space for patients at Good Samaritan and St. Vincent’s hospitals. "Green prescriptions," especially for people in urban areas that don't have everyday access to green spaces, could have measurable health benefits over the years.
Wilderness advocate and conservationist John Muir wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” He wrote that in 1901 in his book Our National Parks. Understanding the need to preserve and protect our wild places and immerse ourselves in them on a regular basis feels vital, now more than ever.
Wow what a week! It’s been a week and a half since the first annual Sustainable Building Week (SBW) ended and I think I am finally rested up. The three goals of Sustainable Building Week were to empower design and building professionals to learn, connect and collaborate. I can say from first hand experience that all three of these goals were met for me. The week of 21 events was the result of a collaboration between eleven non-profit professional organizations and three local universities. Events during the week covered the gamut from A Walk in the Woods to an Innovation Bazaar to AIA’s Green Champions to a set of presentations from small firms called “Small but Mighty.”
A strength of Sustainable Building Week is ‘breaking down silos’ between professions and allowing participants to attend events held by professional organizations outside of their very profession. In the spirit of ‘breaking down silos’ I attended an American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Oregon Chapter lunch event that covered the Passive House movement. In this case, you had a wood nerd in a room full of very smart engineers learning about the benefits of making our buildings more air tight, insulated and efficient. The presenter walked through several projects that dramatically improved energy use, which lowers greenhouse gas emissions and saves money, through renovating existing buildings to meet the standard. I walked away from this event with some interesting ideas about how I could make my own home more efficient, plus I ran into an old friend who looked at me like I was a fish out of water at his industry event.
The entire week was a whirlwind of meeting new people, reconnecting with old colleagues and enjoying this community of dedicated professionals. I met engineers, architects, consultants, interior designers, students, manufacturers, builders, general contractors, university faculty and sub-contractors who were all building bridges across disciplines and plotting plans for collaboration. By the end of the week the organizers of this one-of-a-kind event told me that over 500 people had attended the week’s events. That is an amazing amount of connectivity between professionals of various skill sets and experiences.
The final goal of SBW is critical because without collaboration we will not be able to meet the challenges on our horizon. Becoming a resilient society is going to require a cross-disciplinary approach where all of our professional experiences can be focused on staving off the worst effects of the unpredictable world ahead. At Design the Unseen: Educating Designers to Consider the Micro and Macro for Sustainability, I was happy to introduce a panel of university faculty from Portland State University, University of Oregon and the Art Institute of Portland. The student presentations focused on a wide variety of projects that will help us evolve our designs, re-use of materials, indoor air quality and biophilic design. It was very inspiring to watch the next generation of professionals tackle current day challenges with an eye on the future.
It’s great to go to events and come away inspired but it’s what we do with what we learn, who we meet and how we craft long lasting collaborations that demonstrate the true effectiveness of events and conferences. At Sustainable NW Wood our goal of offering a transparent, biophilic and restorative product that improves natural ecosystems and employs Pacific Northwesterners is certainly better informed and connected through our participation in Sustainable Building Week.
The organizers of this crowd-sourced weeklong conference have told me that they are already planning for Sustainable Building Week in 2019 so stay tuned at www.sustainablebuildingweek.org.
FSC certified 2x4 Douglas Fir is rolling in. Columbia Vista has milled up this premium grade 2x4 Douglas Fir for us and we are excited to make it available to you. Columbia Vista, located just a few miles outside of Portland, is an FSC Certified mill that has been locally owned and operated for over 60 years. Their FSC logs come from nearby sources that include Washington DNR lands and small family forests managed by the Northwest Natural Resources Group. Joins us in supporting both this great mill and our local forests.
Friday kicked us off with a Day of Connection, which included a wine tour & epic scavenger hunt, a golfing excursion, an interactive grilling course, and my choice of a fishing tournament on the Columbia River. I never miss an opportunity to be on the water and this was a perfect day for it. Our guide Bobby Brown, was knowledgeable, skilled and entertaining. His fearless first mate, All Star, was definitely a highlight of the day, especially since the size of my fish was not! The hours passed quickly and I had a chance to get to know my fishing buddy, Scott Weaver with Riggs and Martin Remodeling, better than I could have at a "normal" networking event. We talked about business, the economy, and opportunities to work together, but also about kids, family, and favorite hiking trails. It's this kind of deeper connection that makes BUILD so special.
The Day of Connection turned into a night of live music, dancing and lots of laughter. Thanks to the CFM Hospitality Suite, there may or may not have been a little cocktail driven mayhem. The mayhem continued Saturday for the Common Ground team building day, complete with a Field Day inspired theme. Amy Bright and her crew of merry makers out did themselves with this one. Let's just say this was an epic day of cooperation, collaboration and gut busting giggles. The Zorbs were quite literally a hit and I hope the newlyweds survived their first tumble!
The third arm of the mission of BUILD Retreat is Giving Back. This year, with the silent auction, raffle and paddle raise, this amazing group raised over $20,000 for ReFit, a non-profit organization that supports people that are physically and financially challenged stay safely in their homes. It is so heart warming to be part of such a generous community who give back in such a meaningful way.
We have over 1000 board feet of this handsome, hard to come by, local wood. These are gorgeous, kiln dried, quarter sawn and clear grain slabs, ready for your next project.
Oregon White Oak (Quercs garryana) is the quintessential hardwood for furniture, cabinetry, flooring, and wall cladding. It’s beauty and durability allow for the creation of heirloom quality pieces with a rich, golden hued color palette that is unique to this Pacific Northwest species. Stop by Sustainable Northwest Wood to choose your perfect piece while supplies last!
The 12" x 18" size is perfect for home use, photography, and gift-giving. Already sanded to 180-grit, the cutting boards are ready for your choice of finish (we recommend coconut oil for a food-safe, lustrous, and protective finish, as shown in these photos).
These cutting boards are $40 each.