STILLWATER — Hundreds of overturned trees line the side of State Highway 51 west of Stillwater, twisted in fences and piled on top of one another.
Farther back from the road, acres of Eastern red cedars lay on their sides, mowed over in the same direction.
The site is just a fraction of Oklahoma State University's effort at reclaiming its land from the invasive species of trees. The project began in February and could last up to two years.
When the work is finished, OSU will have cleared 6,600 acres of university land and cut down countless red cedars, said Sam McFee, assistant director of risk management for OSU.
The university is trying to accomplish several things, McFee said, the first being reducing the wildfire risk in the area.
Wildfires in 2012 burned thousands of acres in the state, and red cedars are catching most of the blame because their low branches and flammable oils can easily ignite and spread a grass fire rapidly.
The 2012 fires, coupled with recent drought conditions, led OSU administrators to allocate $485,000 to eradicate the trees from university land, McFee said.
And OSU is not alone in trying to make a dent in the large Oklahoma red cedar population, which covers more than 10 million acres, according to the Oklahoma Natural Resource Conservation Service.
In March, Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan announced a program he said will try to remove about 1,000 trees a week in the county.
OSU's effort has already cut down about 5,000 acres of trees, McFee said, though the trees have not been moved yet. He said the trees will be collected and turned into mulch once they dry.
Oklahoma Forestry Services Spokeswoman Michelle Finch-Walker said the organization supports limiting red cedars in situations when it can improve the health of more desirable tree species.
But she said the organization does not advocate cutting down large numbers of trees with the sole intention of preventing wildfires, calling it “shortsighted and uninformed.”
Walker said the same effect can be achieved by good land management, including spacing out plants and trees and keeping trees trimmed back.
In addition to trying to prevent fires, McFee said clearing the trees will open up the land for the return of animal research and grazing lands.
“With all the cedars, there really is nothing there to study other than the trees,” he said.
McFee said he is hoping the effort can clear land around Lake Carl Blackwell for recreation and possibly help raise water levels, which have been low in recent years.
Keith Owens, department head of Natural Resource and Ecology Management at OSU, said the cedars use about 10 gallons of groundwater a day, though large trees can use up to 30. He said the addition of this groundwater, along with water that never reaches the ground because it gets stuck in limbs and evaporates, could help raise water levels and lessen drought conditions.
McFee said the project is aimed at taking care of the university's land.
“Land stewardship is basically what it comes down to,” he said. “We're trying to make the land useful again while at the same time cutting fire risk.”