Just in time for Halloween, legislators heard Tuesday about the invasion of the creeping menace: the Eastern red cedar. The hardy trees take over nearly 300,000 acres of Oklahoma land every year, and a mature tree can soak up as many as 30 gallons of water a day.
Fire is the main deterrent of the trees’ spread. Fires — from lightning or set by American Indians before the state was settled — had kept the trees under control. But now that fires are fought, and landowners are leery of controlled burns because they may be liable for damages if the fire gets out of control, the Eastern red cedar’s growth in recent years has gone mostly unchecked. "This is a scary situation,” said Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, to the House Agriculture and Rural Development Committee. "We’re losing 700 acres to this invasive species every day.” Minutes earlier, Pope held up a copy of a 22-minute DVD, "Eastern Red Cedar: The Invasion of the Creeping Menace,” that shows how the trees are destroying Oklahoma’s native habitats. The DVD, produced in part by Oklahoma State University, is available at county extension offices. Efforts to thwart the Eastern red cedar are further hampered by the state’s slumping economy. Legislators earlier created an Oklahoma controlled burn indemnity fund to help landowners whose controlled fires to eliminate the trees got out of control and damaged neighbors’ property. Legislators never put any money in it. Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, asked committee members to back legislation that would put $500,000 in the fund next year and build it up to $1 million. It would encourage more controlled burns, the most effective defense against the Eastern red cedar, he said. It’s best to burn the trees when they are young and shorter than 5 feet, Thralls said.