With severe springtime allergies, wildfires and often threats of drought, the state's arch nemesis –– the eastern red cedar –– is an adversary with many weapons in its arsenal. How can one tree be the source of so many problems? It's dominating the landscape without adequate opposition.

Note: An in-depth look at how one of Oklahoma's native trees is causing some increasingly serious problems for the state –– and what, if anything, can be done about it.

With severe springtime allergies, wildfires and often threats of drought, the state's arch nemesis –– the eastern red cedar –– is an adversary with many weapons in its arsenal. How can one tree be the source of so many problems? It's dominating the landscape without adequate opposition.

Locals are questioning the city's plan to address this statewide epidemic.

At a recent City Commission meeting, resident Beverly J. Davis aired her concerns about red cedar trees.

She said she is very allergic to them, as are many people she knows in the area.

She referred to a May 7, 2013, Shawnee News-Star article that discussed the city's plan at that time for a red cedar removal plan and was wondering where the city stands at this time regarding that plan.

In 2013

In 2013, the city voted to defer action on removal of red cedar trees until a study could be done.

Ward 2 Commissioner Linda Agee then spearheaded a campaign to begin red cedar tree eradication around Shawnee Twin Lakes. Through her efforts, Don Turton of Oklahoma State University came to speak to the commission. Turton confirmed that the red cedars do cause lower stream flow rates for bodies of water.

He added, however, that it would be nearly impossible to determine what effects red cedar removal could have without an area-specific study.

Turton said also that the red cedar trees would continue spreading and eventually impact the stream flow if steps were not taken.

Agee proposed action to allot $2,500 toward removal and a Pottawatomie County Commissioner agreed to match funds, also found a contractor who could remove the trees for $75 per acre.

However, city staff recommended the commission not undertake the project due to cost.

Agee encouraged the commission to move forward with the project to get started on conservation.

“It wouldn’t take a study to figure out how to get rid of 100 acres of red cedars,” Agee said, referencing the plan to partner with the county. “We can do something about this right now, without coming up with a comprehensive plan.”

Agee moved to direct city staff to develop a plan for red cedar removal within 90 days, and moved to defer any decision regarding funding until after the plan was presented to commission. The motion passed 5-2.

At present

Davis said, “We were very lucky last year that we were not in a drought situation.” But she said she doesn't think the city can rely upon that.

Davis cited the Farmers Almanac, saying that March through June doesn't appear promising for much rain.

“It's very concerning for all of us, especially if we have to go back to restricted water consumption,” she said.

She said she is asking others to join her quest to have the city of Shawnee utilize the machine to be proactive in removing cedar trees.

“Cedar trees use enormous amounts of water, are a fire danger and release pollen that cause many people to suffer,” she said.

The city confirmed it is working on a plan to get rid of the trees.

“It may not happen immediately,” Davis said, “but there is a plan in place.”

She said, “I know the choir people in my church were very pleased that my presentation was not ignored.”

Since it appears that the area may be in a drought situation this year, the implementation of the plan would certainly help out any water problems, she said.

“I would really appreciate it if we could get rid of the trees,” Davis said.

Ward 4 Commissioner Keith Hall addressed her concern.

“Unfortunately, the majority of the red cedar trees are on private property, so the city can't do anything about them,” he said. “We only own about five percent of the watershed, and that's not enough to make a dent even if we were to cut down all the trees on city property.”

Erickson has said the city does plan to remove some red cedars from area parks in the spring, as well as regroup in the fall to do substantially more on city property as time and manpower allows.

Mayor Wes Mainord suggested giving more exposure to cedar harvesting sites that Davis suggested, so private property owners might have an opportunity to use them.

On forestry.ok.gov, there is a listing of cedar harvesters in the state who will remove the trees for a price.

For more information, go to the Oklahoma Forestry Services website, at forestry.ok.gov, and search for Eastern Red Cedar Registry harvesters.

City plan

James Bryce, director of operations, said the parks department went out to practice with the machine March 22 and part of the next day, Bryce said.

“Over that day and a half we removed about 50 trees of varying sizes out at Glenn Collins Park at the Shawnee Twin Lakes,” he said.

The average time it took to remove a tree with a two-foot trunk circumference was 10-15 minutes, Bryce said.

He said the machine belongs to the Shawnee Municipal Authority, but it's operated by the parks department.

“We have some cedars in some of our parks, but the machine is better suited for forest work –– not so well in an organized setting,” he said.

The ground up trees do not leave a finely mulched product, so it won't work for use in flower beds, he said.

Some background

Trey Lam, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said prior to settlement of Oklahoma, cedars were restricted to rock outcrops, gullied areas and along streams or canyons. These were areas that were usually protected from wildfires. Wildfires used to burn off open areas –– keeping them in check –– and with settlement, came fire control. “This allowed the cedars to get a start in the prairies, and with birds spreading the seed, soon cedars began to increase,” Lam said.

• In 1994 it was estimated that Pottawatomie County had 10,000 acres heavily invested with eastern red cedars (ERC). By 2016, that number could be 21,600 acres. It was estimated that an acre of ERC (50 trees) consumes 55,000 gallons of water.

• In 2000, it was estimated that red cedars cost Oklahoma $218 million dollars annually through catastrophic wildfires, loss of cattle forage, loss of wildlife habitat, recreation and water yield. By 2013 that figure is expected to increase to $447 million if major preventative control steps are not taken to control the invading cedars.

• A Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) survey in 1985 found an estimated 3.5 million acres of rangeland, pasture and forestland had been invaded by cedar compared to 1.5 million acres in 1950. The acreage increased to eight million acres by 2004 and without control could reach 12.6 million acres by 2013 (28 percent of the Oklahoma landscape). The surveys are based upon estimates of land with at least 50 cedar trees per acre.

• Cedars have become a problem in all Oklahoma counties except the panhandle and a few counties in the southwestern part of the state.

• The encroachment is increasing at an estimated rate of 762 acres a day or nearly 300,000 acres per year.

• Thousands of Oklahomans are allergic to tree pollen and studies have shown that the pollen grain concentrations (allergen) produced by cedar trees tripled from 1988 to 1996. The amount of cedar pollen will continue to increase as the population of trees increases and they move into new areas. This means millions of dollars will be spent for medicine and doctor visits for allergy problems and the resulting loss of human productivity.

Information gathered from the Oklahoma Conservation Commission.

In a report from collaboration of the High Plains Resource Conservation & Development Council (HPRC&D), Oklahoma Forestry Services (OFS), the Aromatic Cedar Association (ACA), and Oklahoma State University (OSU), the study stated overall, approximately 12,600,000 acres of the state are considered forested; the red cedar type comprises about 600,000 acres. The red cedar type indicates only that red cedar is the predominant tree species and does not indicate the number of acres on which red cedar exists.

In total, it is estimated that about 462 million red cedar trees are in the state. It is also estimated that Oklahoma is losing almost 300,000 acres per year to juniper encroachment, according to the report.

Trey Lam, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said red cedars are quite a problem.

“They are extremely difficult to control,” he said. Though burning is the best option, he said there are disadvantages.

“It can be tricky and difficult,” he said. “There is a small window of opportunity to burn because it requires adequate fuel (grass) and the temperature, wind speed and humidity have to be within acceptable ranges. It also requires labor and equipment,” he said.

The cedars can be a great fire hazard because of the huge amount of oil in the needles and how quickly they can become dried out, Lam said.

He said they're not quite like typical trees in the way they compete with grass and others trees. They hurt the quality of the ground around them, Lam said. They use up a lot of water, as well as drying everything else out –– which makes the fire risk go up.

There are hopes for harvesting the trees due to the economic value they potentially have, but the problem is how to make use of them and collect them in a cost-effective way. It's very expensive to mechanically harvest the trees, he said.

Some of the biggest factors to consider are the eastern red cedar's ability to quickly populate an area and multiply.

George Geissler, state forester from Oklahoma Agriculture, Food & Forestry explained how the red cedar cycle is spiraling out of control.

“It's a prevalent reseeder,” Geissler said. “It germinates readily through the bellies of birds, likely why you see so many of these trees pop up along fence lines.”

One of the problems is that we have not done a good job keeping the growth under control, he said.

For example, when land is overgrazed, the trees move in and spread, he said.

No one has a really good idea how many there are. From the forestry standpoint, Geissler said, we are inventorying and discovering where they are and learning more and more.

He said out of the approximately 44 million acres total in Oklahoma, current estimations suggest there are roughly two or three million acres of red cedars. There is a tendency to lose eco-systems where the cedars go.

They don't necessarily use more water, it's more like there's more water used because there are more of these trees.

Many people are severely allergic to them, which makes it a health hazard.

We could use the oil and lumber and manage the land better, but there's no magic pill –– no one thing that will fix the problem –– we have to employ several different approaches to keep knocking it back.

As the trees get bigger it's more costly to get rid of them.

Prescribed burning is the least expensive cedar control method and it is very effective, especially on trees two to three feet tall and smaller, Geissler said.

They are a health threat and a fire risk –– considering the volatile oils and moisture levels, they ignite easily –– but these things can generally be said of other trees, as well.

Locally

Kristi Prince, of Shawnee, said, “We are gradually cutting some of the cedars down because they suck the water from the ground that is needed by other trees and also present a fire hazard. The problem is getting rid of them after you cut them. Although we live in the country and can legally burn, the winds often make it too dangerous since the cedars are so flammable,” she said.

Michelle Tucker, of Shawnee, said her only problem is that the cedars are multiplying rapidly and, as a result, taking over her property. “I live in a somewhat densely wooded area, Tucker said, because of this, I am also concerned about the fire danger.”

She said she is a single mom on a teacher's income.

“Unfortunately, I don't have the money or the resources to do anything about it,” she said.

 

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