Now, I'm not that old (especially in the opinion of those older than me), but even I can remember going out with the family in December to look for and cut just the right tree for Christmas décor. Of course, it had to be an evergreen tree, and 35 years ago, just like now, the only evergreen tree native to Love County, America, was eastern red cedar. The biggest difference between then and now, which is probably why I can so vividly remember those family outings, is that you had to look pretty hard in most of Love County to even find a cedar tree, much less one "just right."
Today in Love County, you can see an eastern red cedar tree from just about any vantage point. This is the case for many other counties in Oklahoma as well. In 1993, Terry Bidwell, associate professor of rangeland ecology and Extension range specialist at Oklahoma State University stated that Oklahoma is experiencing the most rapid and extensive change in its landscape since the land runs and associated farming that began in the late 1800s. Due mainly to fire suppression, eastern red cedar and ashe juniper (red cedar) had invaded almost 1.5 million acres in Oklahoma by 1950, 3.5 million acres by 1985 and 6 million acres by 1994 (Engle et. al. 1996). Currently, the Oklahoma Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that Oklahoma is losing 762 acres of rangeland (one of our most diverse and valuable ecosystems) per day. Yes, that's per day. Think about that for a minute. There are 640 acres in a square mile.
This should be of serious concern to all Oklahomans, not just farmers and ranchers. The continued spread of red cedar is a serious threat to our state's natural resources and, therefore, our economy. In its final report, the Redcedar Task Force estimated that in 2001, the annual economic loss for catastrophic wildfire, loss of cattle forage, loss of wildlife habitat (lease hunting), recreation and water yield was $218 million. If no preventive steps are taken to control red cedar, that estimate rises to $447 million in 2013. Their estimates did not include other potential economic losses such as loss of endangered species, poor water quality, sedimentation in water reservoirs and degraded air quality resulting in compromised human respiratory health. Red cedar has been one of the primary culprits causing an increase in human allergic reactions in Oklahoma during the past few decades.
Water is rapidly becoming one of the most important social, political, economic and biological issues in Oklahoma. Maintaining the health of our native plant communities is critical for capturing water. The spread of red cedar is a serious threat to Oklahoma's water resources. Red cedar stands can reduce infiltration, degrade watershed quality and use a lot of water that would otherwise be captured and stored in aquifers by healthy rangelands. A mature cedar can use over 30 gallons of water per day, and its leaves can intercept up to 25 percent of rainfall where it can evaporate before reaching the ground. The demand for clean water in Oklahoma will continue to increase.
Red cedar infestations cause a loss of biodiversity in our native plant communities and change habitat structure, composition and dynamics that many songbirds and other fauna such as deer and turkey depend on for survival. Our native plant communities evolved with grazing and fire over thousands of years, and, if the spread of red cedar is not stopped, the integrity of our native plant communities and associated wildlife species, both enjoyed by so many, will be lost.
Healthy native plant communities also play a critical role in producing livestock. Two hundred-fifty red cedar trees per acre covering 28 square feet each (a six-foot crown diameter), about one tree every 13 feet, would reduce herbaceous production (grasses and forbs) by 50 percent (Bidwell, 1993). Think about how many areas have or will have 250 or more red cedar trees per acre. Think about our state's agriculture economy with only half or less the current number of cattle on our rangelands.
It's time for people in Oklahoma to stop the spread of red cedar on our rangelands. We should be tapping our congressmen and women on the shoulder and asking them to begin addressing this issue for the benefit of our state's economic and biological health. The first order of business should be to reduce red cedar on our public lands. Many of our state parks have seriously deteriorated in the past few decades because of red cedar invasion. These efforts should be well documented and publicized so all can see and learn about the benefits to our state's public land. At the same time, we should increase funding to assist landowners with the removal of red cedar from their property, especially those that have sound production management practices in place to ensure the future health of our rangelands.
We must begin to educate the public about the tools we need to use to reduce the spread of red cedar. The major two tools are burning and cutting. Prescribed fire is usually the most efficient way to prevent and remove red cedar. The public needs to be aware that prescribed fire is essential to maintaining the beauty, diversity and production of our state's rangelands.
The Arbuckle Restoration Association is being organized so landowners and other concerned people can address many of these issues in Carter, Johnston and Murray counties in Oklahoma. If you are up to the challenge, contact your county Extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service office or the Noble Research Institute at (580) 224-6500 for information on how to become involved.
BE A LEADER ... KILL A CEDAR!
Bidwell, T. G. 1993. Eastern Redcedar Ecology and Management. Oklahoma State University Extension Facts. No. 2868.
Drake, B. and P. Todd. 2002. A Strategy for Control and Utilization of Invasive Juniper Species in Oklahoma: Final Report of the "Redcedar Task Force." Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.
Engle, D.M., T.G. Bidwell, and M.E. Moseley. 1996. Invasion of Oklahoma Rangelands and Forests by Eastern Redcedar and Ashe Juniper. Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service. Circular E-947.