Ed LaRose had never heard of alligator juniper when he and his wife went camping in the northern Arizona wilderness four years ago and forgot their charcoal. Hungry, and left with only raw steaks, LaRose chopped up some dead branches from the alligator juniper where they had set up camp, and threw their dinner on the flame. "We took one bite of our steaks," he says, "and knew we'd found something special."
They filled half their pickup with more juniper deadwood, took it back home and tested it on family and friends. LaRose grilled steaks, burgers and vegetables. He smoked turkeys and hams. Everyone wanted more. LaRose smelled opportunity.
Conveniently, alligator juniper is one of the trees that the U.S. Forest Service thins as a wildfire-prevention strategy. The largest of the species, it can grow up to 80 feet tall, with trunks four feet wide, marked by thick, dark-gray, checker-plated bark that resembles an alligator's hide. Found largely in the higher elevations of the Southwest, the tree is especially attracted to overgrazed grasslands, invading meadows where it depletes warm-weather grasses critical for foraging animals.
Alligator juniper is also slow to decompose, so its deadwood becomes a long-living fuse for wildfires. In these recent high-drought, high-fire years, thinning the juniper slash has become a critical and expensive necessity for Forest Service rangers. But now, in national forests throughout New Mexico and Arizona, including the Gila, Tonto and Sitgreaves, USFS rangers aren't just paying crews to haul slash anymore. Instead, they're making a little money from an unlikely partner: Ed LaRose.
"The business literally started from the ground up," says LaRose, who eventually started Alligator Smoke Wood from his home in Snowflake, Ariz. LaRose employs a large crew of workers under a special-use cutting permit that usually covers 200 acres of forest at a time, and costs $5 an acre. Alligator juniper chips are then bagged and sold as an aromatic barbecue fuel.
LaRose isn't the only local to find alternative uses for the abundant wood. Native Americans value the juniper, a member of the cypress family, for its medicinal qualities, cowboys cut the trees for fence posts that never rot, and wood sculptors use the gnarled hardwood for unusual furniture. Now, with LaRose's company, alligator juniper is gaining a reputation with backyard barbecuers and national restaurant chains. In the last year, LaRose's product has been sold in Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Austins Steakhouse, restaurant chain.
With million-dollar contracts, and increasing demand for his product, it might seem that LaRose's entrepreneurial success could incite a flood of forest thinners looking to make some extra money.
"No chance," says Bob Yost, with the Gila National Forest. "It's real hard work, so I don't think anyone else is interested." In addition, Yost adds, LaRose has only used about 3,000 of the 39,000 acres throughout New Mexico and Arizona that have been made available to him. "He's not even making a dent. We're still trying to devise ways to deal with small diameter wood."
This summer, LaRose plans to expand his business to produce compressed hamburger-patty shaped fuel cells, which he calls "Stove In A Can." In addition to selling the product in stores, he plans to ship some of the stoves to developing countries as part of Children International's food drops, he says.
"I've had nothing but good responses to our work," LaRose adds. He prides himself on the effort of his thinning crews, noting that they pick up trash while they clear out the juniper slash. Now, LaRose is becoming a connoisseur of alligator juniper. As he trolls through the woods, he tastes each branch and berry, effecting a quality control that will guarantee a sweet smoky infusion, and, he hopes, a stream of return customers.
Janis Marston writes from Reserve, New Mexico.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- Alligator Smoke Wood at 888/838-5760.
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Janis Marston