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Burning Issue: How to Control Eastern Red Cedar

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Eastern Red Cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) in Oklahoma. Eastern Red Cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana) in Oklahoma.
"These trees have infested the entire state," Rep. Richard Morrissette, (D) District 92 said. "We're losing 700 acres a day from this tree, a hundred gallons of water a day from these trees." "These trees have infested the entire state," Rep. Richard Morrissette, (D) District 92 said. "We're losing 700 acres a day from this tree, a hundred gallons of water a day from these trees."
Perry McDonald, who co-owns a small company that clears and harvests cedar, said the cedar should be harvested in Oklahoma and in turn could be marketed into what he thinks could be a billion dollar industry. Perry McDonald, who co-owns a small company that clears and harvests cedar, said the cedar should be harvested in Oklahoma and in turn could be marketed into what he thinks could be a billion dollar industry.

Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY – It may not seem like much in the rarefied air of the $787 billion Recovery Act, but $100,000 is still good money, and that's how much the state is getting in stimulus funding to help fight a particularly invasive plant species: the Eastern Red Cedar.

State agriculture experts said red cedar trees overtake almost 300,000 acres a year across the state. Some of that is offset by eradication measures already in place, but the fast-growing junipers are winning the battle.

The implications, state officials said, are significant because of the damage cedars can cause and the threat they pose.

"If you've ever seen a red cedar burn, it's like a bomb," said Rep. Richard Morrissette, (D) District 92.

Rep. Morrissette hosted a hearing for stakeholders and other interested parties at the Capitol last week to follow up on an interim study he requested on the red cedar menace. Through the study, Morrissette learned the red cedar is not only dangerously flammable, it steals water from competing trees and vegetation, disturbs prairie ecosystems and destroys wildlife habitat.

"These trees have infested the entire state," Morrissette said. "We're losing 700 acres a day from this tree, a hundred gallons of water a day from these trees."

Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, said unchecked, the trees will put the Lesser Prairie Chicken on the endangered species list.

"It's just a situation where these trees have gotten out of control," Pope said.

At present, the most commonly practiced method for halting the spread of red cedar in Oklahoma is prescribed burning, and according to officials with the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the $100,000 in stimulus money is to be used to bolster those efforts.

"This money is going to be used to promote prescribed fire on private lands through prescribed burn associations by buying equipment, getting the education, having workshops and teaching people how to burn safely," said Luke Bell, U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife.

But all the focus on burning unwanted cedar only frustrates people like Perry McDonald.

"Why are we sitting here burning it, when we could market it? Yeah, that's frustration," McDonald said.

McDonald is co-owner of a small company, Singing Wire Cedar, in eastern Oklahoma that clears and then harvests cedar trees.

"This is cedar," McDonald explained during a recent visit to his rural home/workshop.  "Some of this wood right here is actually going to be put into countertops."

Countertops, fencing, closets, chests, mulch, insecticide, oil, and bio-fuel pellets – all cedar products that, McDonald said, could be produced in Oklahoma from cedar currently targeted for burning.

He said there's tremendous potential for a cedar industry in Oklahoma.

"I would estimate, and the numbers have been bantered around, that there's a billion dollars a year that we're burning in Oklahoma. That's a "b"…billion," McDonald said.

But to make it work, McDonald said, the state needs to change course and take the stimulus and other monies going toward burning, and instead put them toward building – building infrastructure. He said the state could help stimulate the construction of new sawmills and the purchase of new mulching equipment. It could also help educate people on the commercial opportunity that cedar provides.

And, still, prescribed burns will remain in the mix. 

"Yeah, we're gonna have to burn some of the stuff in Oklahoma, we are, but we don't have to burn all of it," McDonald said. "And the stuff that we don't burn, we need to be harvesting."

Rep. Morrissette said he agreed.

"We have got to take this opportunity now," Marietta said. "I mean, this is something if we don't address now,we're gonna address it one way or another in the future."

And, after his hearing, others also seemed inclined to agree.

"If there's a way we can make money off of an environmental problem, we're supportive of that. Definitely anything that can get this invasive species under control," Pope said.

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