Where there's smoke wood, there's less fire

An Arizona entrepreneur makes good on juniper slash

  • Bag of alligator smoke wood

  • Stack of juniper wood

 

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

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...