Most of the state, including Pawnee County, is being attacked by an invasive species.
Over the last several decades, the eastern red cedar, Juniperus Virginiana, has invaded the state’s woodlands and open prairies, choking out all other vegetation. Now, millions of unwanted trees are gulping our water supply, spreading wildfires, and taking millions of dollars from taxpayer’s pockets. State and local officials are looking into measures to stop the infestation.
The spread of eastern red cedars is already out of control, and the problem grows worse each day. According to the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, the infestation of eastern red cedars already costs the state more than half a billion dollars per year.
The Oklahoma State Extension Office estimates that the Eastern Red Cedar infestation now covers over 11 million of Oklahoma’s 17 million acres of prairie and shrub land. State agencies estimate the trees are taking our pastures and woodlands at the rate of over 760 acres each day. At that rate, another 300,000 thousand acres are infested each year. An acre of land is considered infested when 50 or more trees are growing there.
Even though the eastern red cedar is indigenous to Oklahoma, the trees were once confined to only rocky areas and box canyons. Before the settlement of the state, the open ranges and woodlands were controlled by regular wildfires. As civilization spread, however, so did fire suppression.
“It’s a big problem, and it’s mainly due to fire suppression in the last 100 years,” said Rick Clovis with the Pawnee County Extension Office. “Cedars can’t withstand fire. Historically, the prairie burned every five years on average. The cedars were under control, they would just grow down in the canyons and rocky areas.”
In the winter, the cedars trees produce small blue berries, which are eaten by birds. The droppings from the birds spread the seeds across the state’s woods and pasturelands. You’ll notice the trees especially grow along fence lines where birds like to roost. Once a few trees take root, left unattended, the problem grows exponentially, until eventually the trees choke out all other vegetation.
With the infestation of cedar trees, comes a variety of problems. Perhaps the biggest issue with trees is how much water they consume.
A 2017 study by the Oklahoma State Extension Service reported red cedars consume about 21 gallons of water per day. Larger trees can consume much more, as much as 100 gallons per day.
By the most conservative estimate, with 11 million acres infested with at least 50 trees per acre, the trees are gulping up Oklahoma water resources at the rate of over 11 billion gallons per day. By comparison, Tulsa Water Works estimates the city uses only about 101 million gallons of water per day. In short, the trees are consuming about one-thousand times more water per day than Oklahoma’s second largest city.
Duel Brown, with the United States Department of Agriculture, believes the problem is so large that we should now focus tree removal efforts in targeted areas.
“Going county-wide is too broad,” Brown said. “We need to focus on removing the cedars from watershed areas that are providing water to our cities, specifically, northwest of the lake in Pawnee and around the lake in Cleveland.”
Besides drinking up Oklahoma’s water resources, the red cedars have also fueled wild fire devastation in the state.
Eastern red cedars contain oil, and when touched off by wildfires, they burst into flames. A wildfire with cedar trees is much harder to control, and they pose a greater threat to nearby houses.
“Area wildfires are becoming like those you see in California where the houses are getting burned up,” Brown said. “In California, those fires are especially devastating because people put their houses in the middle of forests surrounded by 50-pines. We’re beginning to see similar problems here with cedars trees near houses.”
As Cleveland Fire Chief Ryan Murray and his fellow firefighters battled the wildfires which threatened the Oakridge and Rockridge home sights last March, the infestation eastern red cedars contributed to the spread of the blaze.
“The hillside with the flag was covered in them,” Murray said. “They were also thick on the west side of the golf course. The trees contributed to the spread. When the fire hit them, they basically blew up on us. When there are so many of them, they are terrible for us when we are fighting fires.”
The cedars are also a problem for those with allergy problems. Red cedar pollen grains fill the air between December and February.
With all those bad characteristics, the cedars offer little in return.
“They’re not good for wildlife because nothing can grow underneath,” Clovis said. “They may offer good cover in small groves, but when there're hundreds of acres of them, and nothing else can grow, they offer little benefit.”
The State of Oklahoma has noted the growing eastern read cedar problem. In June, The Oklahoma House of Representatives signed the Terry Peach North Canadian Watershed Restoration Act into law. This bill will allow 3.2 million in state funding to study and tackle the problem along a 5000-acre area along the North Canadian River.
In the study, researchers will remove the cedars from a large area along the North Canadian, using both mechanical methods and prescribed burning, and will then measure the amount of water conserved. They hope to provide a framework for attacking the cedar invasion across the state.
In the meantime, Pawnee County officials are working with local landowners to attack the eastern red cedar problem.
According to Brown, The United States Department of Agriculture offers help for those wishing to learn more and who want to clear cedars from their land. In addition, The Pawnee County Prescribed Burn Association is another area resource. In this group, members pay dues, learn prescribed burn techniques, and help one another remove the cedars from properties.
The Pawnee County Prescribed Burn Association can be contacted on Facebook.
“I wish a lot more people would take the initiative to cut the cedars down,” Murray said. “There are programs out there that will help people get rid of them.”