A multimillion-dollar plant to process oil and fuel, more controlled burns and even using goats are some of the ideas proposed to help reduce the number of Eastern red cedar trees in Oklahoma. The hardy, invasive trees threaten the state's landscape by choking off land for crops and pastures and by fueling wildfires.
Wildfires that spread across at least four counties last month increased in intensity when they came across Eastern red cedar trees. Fires seemed to explode as flames engulfed the trees.
The wildfires, which destroyed 680 homes and businesses and burned more than 114,000 acres, were a reminder how much of a danger the trees pose and how fast they are overtaking the land. The Eastern red cedar takes over nearly 300,000 acres of Oklahoma land each year. It's estimated the state is losing about 700 acres per day to the trees.
Gary Bledsoe, chairman of the Eastern Red Cedar Registry Board that was formed two years ago to encourage markets for the cedars, as well as methods to eradicate the trees, said only 10 percent of the cedar trees in the state is marketable in a lumber form.
“That other 90 percent mostly is just a brushy species that is encroaching on pastureland and roadsides and in timber,” he said. “It's not really marketable as timber. They just look like brush.”
Some companies in the state already are making mulch from the cedar trees and others are making furniture and boards from the trees.
“They're utilizing such a small percentage of the production of cedar in the state of Oklahoma,” Bledsoe said.
An Oklahoma City group is proposing to use a process to heat shredded Eastern red cedars to recover cedar oil.
When refined, the oil can sell for $45 per gallon; it has a wide range of applications, including pharmaceuticals for cancer treatment, pesticides and fungicides.
Sun Rays 2 Oil wants to build a $200 million plant in Enid that would extract the cedar oil, which makes up about 3 percent of the weight of the tree. The company has developed a process that also allows for the recovery of cellulosic activated carbon, which is used in water filtration, medical drug filtration and the cleansing of sugar, said Andre Thomas, president of the group.
The plant would have a second stage that would convert the biomass material to a specific carbon type and then inject oxygen and other additives to convert 90 percent of the carbon to hydrocarbon fuels such as jet fuel and diesel, Thomas said. It's possible to get about 200 gallons of jet fuel from each ton of wood.
About 97 percent of the tree is converted to other products, he said.
With slight modifications, the plant could convert to liquid hydrocarbon fuels from a variety of woody biomass products, such as used lumber, municipal waste, plastics and asphalt shingles, according to material Thomas provided to members of the cedar registry board during a meeting last week.
Sun Rays 2 Oil is trying to finalize financing of the project and is looking at possible state incentives, Thomas said.
The plant would hire 65 to 85 employees.
“We see this as an opportunity to roll this out nationwide, and Oklahoma would be the first site,” Thomas said.
“Our target feedstock is primarily invasive species. It just makes sense. There is a need to remove that. We're not taking that product from other uses that are in the marketplace right now.”
‘Board of trade'
Brent Kisling, executive director of the Enid Regional Development Alliance, said a group has been formed in Enid, the National Feedstock Resource Center, to work out contracts with landowners in the region so Sun Rays 2 Oil would have a steady supply of Eastern red cedars.
The center intends to serve as a “board of trade” between landowners with Eastern red cedar and other invasive tree species and biofuel and biochemical producers. The ability to negotiate contracts with landowners is essential in order to get access to private land to harvest the trees.
In return for allowing their Eastern red cedars to be harvested, landowners will see the value of their land increase as it would be better suited for pasture or cropland, he said.
“It's changing the landscape of the country where we can raise more cattle and make better use of the land,” Kisling said.
The ability of Sun Rays 2 Oil to produce jet fuel makes it a good fit for Enid, which is home to Vance Air Force Base, Kisling said. The base trains jet pilots.
The plant would require about 146,000 gallons of water, and the city of Enid is looking at a viable water source, he said. A possibility is using treated wastewater instead of water intended for drinking.
The city of Enid will be asked to declare the plant's site, which could take up about 30 acres, as a tax increment financing district, he said. A portion of the district's annual property tax would be used to pay a share of the project's cost.
Kisling said federal funding and state investment tax credits also might be explored for the proposal.
“The nice thing about this project is that the technology does not have to be proven,” Kisling said. “It is off-the-shelf technology that's already existing. The part of the puzzle that's not yet done is the financing part.”
Paul Todd, a member of the cedar registry board, said the proposal sounds interesting, but other companies have presented plans that fizzled.
“We've heard these stories before,” he said.
Fire at one time was the main deterrent of the Eastern red cedar 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.
Darrell Dominic, with the Oklahoma Prescribed Burn Association, said controlled burns are the most effective defense against the Eastern red cedar.
It's best to burn the trees when they are young and shorter than 5 feet; trees taller than that can burn easily and can quickly make a fire spread out of control.
Dominic said the association can provide online and hands-on training for members and provide access to equipment to allow members to safely conduct burns. It's a low-cost way to control cedars.
But the group needs money, he told board members. He suggested operating funds for at least two years until membership fees or grants would be enough to pay operational costs.
Steve Hart said goats are a viable option to control brush and cedar.
Hart, a research scientist at the Institute for Goat Research at Langston University, said goats easily eat Eastern red cedars up to knee high.
They will eat taller trees in the winter months, when the cedar oil in the trees is at a lower level.
Goats cost about $1.50 a pound now, but can be as much as a dollar higher in the winter, Hart said.
A downside to goats is that they always would be needed to sustain control of the cedars and fencing and a way to protect them from predators would be required.
Goats eat the bark off the trees, as well as all the greenery, he said
Shorter cedars are controlled quicker, Hart said. A thick stand of taller cedars may take five or more years to control.
“If you have goats, the cedars don't regenerate,” he said.