For me, there are few sensory pleasures greater than the tangy smell of juniper trees (and especially so when I have a fly rod in hand and an eastern Oregon trout stream is chilling my ankles). But apart from their aroma, junipers are mostly ignored because there is little commercial use for them and they mostly inhabit pretty lonely country.
But we can’t ignore juniper much longer. A new study in Oregon by the US Forest Service shows that the native tree is expanding dramatically, quadrupling its range over the last 75 years. Researchers attribute the trees’ success to a variety of factors, including incrementally warmer and wetter weather (which favors juniper) and range management techniques like fire suppression (range fires once killed off many juniper seedlings). In many ways, the juniper expansion is a classic example of the unintended consequences of altering ecosystems—the effect may be long-delayed and subtle, but it is often profound.
Juniper expansion turns out to be a bad deal for eastern Oregon’s native ecology, including the sage grouse, which depend on certain shrubs and grasses that are getting out-competed. And juniper also soaks up a tremendous amount of water—as much as 30 gallons a day for a single tree—a potentially big problem for both ranchers and ecosystems in an arid region.
The Forest Service researchers don’t mention this, but I believe there is something we can all do about the juniper take-over. Because juniper berries are the principle flavoring agent for gin, it’s conceivable that by drinking enough booze we could help arrest the spread of the trees. Pour yourself a gin and tonic tonight—easy on the tonic. You’re doing it for the Earth.