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Cutting Down Desert Junipers To Save Precious Water

There’s a very thirsty tree taking over much of central and eastern Oregon. Scientists say that in the heat of summer a single juniper tree can draw 25 gallons of water out of the ground.

Oregon Field Guide’s Vince Patton reports those trees are radically altering the landscape.

Doc Hatfiield:  “Boy that brittle brush looks healthy.”

Doc Hatfield’s High Desert Ranch spreads across 14,000 acres.

He raises cattle amid this sea of sagebrush, grass and juniper.

Oregon Field Guide

Hatfield arrived 34 years ago.  He became famous for founding Country Natural Beef – raising cattle with the health of the land in mind.

Doc Hatfiield: “We want to blend and fit in and be part of this landscape and be a positive in tune with it rather than extracting something from it.”

So it may seem odd that Hatfield has a crew cutting down lots of trees

Doc Hatfiield: “We’ve worked with the junipers since we came here in ‘76.  We don’t want to eliminate them completely, but we want to put them in a balance where we think they would be if nature had its choice.”

Junipers are native to this region, but ever since settlers stopped letting wildfires burn the trees have spread far beyond their original territory.

So Hatfield’s cattle lose forage and threatened sage grouse lose the grass and sagebrush they depend on.

In 1934 western junipers covered barely a million acres in Oregon.

Now they cover 6 million acres.

Oregon Field Guide

Doc Hatfield:  “Historically this was not a forest. And of course the Indians regularly burned it to keep it in check. In the absence of fire they are out of their natural ecological niche and a problem.  The problem is they drink all year round and they drink in the spring before the grass is warm enough to grow.

Picture millions of drinking straws stuck into the desert sucking out the water.

Doc’s son, Travis, says juniper trees are remarkably thirsty.

Travis Hatfield: “It has an ability to pull moisture right out of the ground not for its own benefit, just to disperse it back into the air.”

Scientists from Oregon State University had heard the ranchers’ tales but wondered if you could really measure the difference junipers make to the water supply.

Hatfield’s got such a big ranch the researchers decided to run their experiment right here. 

In one zone, from hilltop to hilltop they cut down most of the juniper trees, except for the oldest ones.

In another watershed they left all the junipers alone.

What a difference. In the zone they cleared, underground wells keep water 45 more days each year.

Tim Deboodt with the Crook County Extension service measures one spring that now gushes at 40 gallons a minute.

Tim Deboodt: “Before we cut the trees it never got above 30 gallon a minute. What we’ve seen is a tremendous increase in flow year round but probably more importantly the flow in the late season, that period from mid-July through September that this country’s really, really dry, We’ve increased the spring output three to five gallons a minute. And for being on the desert, three to five gallons a minute is a lot of water.

Doc Hatfield found the results simply astounding.

Doc Hatfield: “I wouldn’t have hardly believed that possible.”

Years ago, some conservationists objected to removing trees for fear it would lead to more cattle grazing on public lands.

That hasn’t happened. And since threatened sage grouse benefit from fewer trees and more sagebrush, a number of environmentalists now favor limited juniper removal.

Again, Travis Hatfield.

Travis Hatfield: “If that water could stay in the ground it could grow these grass plants that we are standing in. and benefit the cattle and wildlife that are here.”

The results of this scientific study on Hatfield’s property suggest that cutting or burning some juniper trees could prevent Oregon’s sagebrush steppe from turning into even more of a juniper woodland.