A state prison official said Thursday the agency could put together a pilot program in which minimum security inmates would be used to harvest invasive Eastern red cedar trees, but received no assurances from a legislative panel that new funding would be available to pay for it.
Rep. Steve Martin, chairman of the House of Representatives Public Safety Committee, said the Corrections Department likely would have to work with other agencies to find existing funds to pay for the pilot program.
“It's hard to get new money,” said Martin, R-Bartlesville.
Renee Watkins, deputy director of minimum security prisons for the Corrections Department, said it would cost about $190,000 to start up a 10-man crew to cut down the Eastern red cedars. Most of the money would be used to buy equipment, such as saws and trucks, and to pay for two prison workers to supervise the inmates, she said. All inmates on the crew would be nonviolent offenders and those not convicted of sex crimes.
She proposed starting the program at the William S. Key Correctional Center near Fort Supply.
Plenty of Eastern red cedars are in the area; about 20 private companies are in land-clearing business in the area and she said she hoped the inmate harvesting program wouldn't interfere with those operations.
Legislation was passed and signed into law this year that allows the Corrections Department to use inmates to harvest Eastern red cedars on public and private land.
The measure takes effect Nov. 1.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, author of Senate Bill 1539 who requested Thursday's interim study, intended the measure to be another way to attack the hardy Eastern red cedars that choke off land for crops and pastures and fuel wildfires.
The trees helped spread wildfires across at least four counties last month. They take 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.
Just burning that new growth of cedars each year, which is among the most affordable methods to control the trees, would cost about $7.5 million, said Clay Pope, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts.