ARDMORE, Okla. — Noble Foundation wildlife specialist Russell Stevens remembers going out with his family in December to look for and cut just the right Christmas tree. Of course, it had to be an evergreen, Stevens said, and 35 years ago, just like now, the only evergreen tree native to Love County, Okla., 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,'" he says.
Today in Love County, you can see an eastern red cedar tree from just about any vantage point. This is also the case for many other Oklahoma counties. 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. Currently, the Oklahoma Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that Oklahoma is losing 762 acres of rangeland, one of the state’s most diverse and valuable ecosystems, per day.
"Yes, that's per day," Stevens adds. "Think about that for a minute. There are 640 acres in a square mile."
Stevens believes 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 the state's natural resources and, therefore, its 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. The task force's 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.
Water is rapidly becoming one of the most important social, political, economic and biological issues in Oklahoma, Stevens says. 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.
Red cedar infestations cause a loss of biodiversity in 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.
Oklahoma's 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 these 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. According to research, 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.
"Think about how many areas have or will have 250 or more red cedar trees per acre," Stevens says. "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 rangelands, according to Stevens. Reducing red cedar on public lands is vital. Many 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 the state’s public land.
The public must be educated about the tools needed 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," Stevens says.
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. Contact a county Extension or Natural Resources Conservation Service office or the Noble Foundation at (580) 224-6500 for information on how to become involved.