Phil Archuletta has been in the sign business for 40 years. His company, P&M Signs, Inc., Mountainair, New Mexico, supplies signage nationally to the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Parks Service.

It was by complete chance, then, that this dyed-in-the-wool sign guy found himself in the composites business. Today, he holds a joint patent with the United States Forest Service for a composite product he calls Altree, which was selected late last year by the United Nations to be part of its display of innovative wood and paper products in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1993, the forests of the desert southwest were being overrun with juniper, pinyon and other small trees, increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfires and causing problems for Archuletta’s long-time customers at the U.S. Forest Service. An initiative came down from policymakers in Washington D.C. tasking the agency with finding a way to get rid of the overgrowth and to find a use for the foliage.

“I was approached by the Forest Service to research other uses for the small diameter material,” he said. “I contacted the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., who I’d worked with previously, and took the small materials to Madison, where we started to work in the lab.”

Archuletta knew that New Mexico natives had been using juniper as posts, primarily in fencing, since the Spanish settlers arrived several centuries ago, so it was only natural that his first idea was to turn the overgrowth into four-foot posts. With a $30,000 grant in hand, and a vision for juniper-derived composite posts that could be used in fencing throughout New Mexico’s state parks, Archuletta and Forest Lab researcher Jim Mills set to work.

“At first we ground up the material and mixed it with plaster and cement – we tried all kinds of different methods to develop a product out of it,” he explains. “Finally, we were frustrated, because nothing really looked promising. The materials weren’t holding together. The lab had a small extruder on hand, so we decided we were going to mix it with plastic and see what would come out.”

The result marked a turning point in the project.

“We mixed the juniper with plastic, put it under the press and out came the most beautiful board you’ve ever seen in your life!” Archuletta said. “I said, ‘This is what we want, we want to make a plastic wood composite and sell it all over the place for all kinds of things.’”