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Threat of Eastern red cedars is growing in Oklahoma, experts say

Oklahoma will never get rid of the invasive Eastern red cedars, which are costing the state about $447 million a year in economic losses, experts say. A lawmaker hopes the trees can be used to make money.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT Modified: October 10, 2012 at 9:48 pm •  Published: October 11, 2012

A study estimated that Oklahoma is losing 5,680 coveys of quail a year, she said. A covey has about a dozen quail. Using those figures, the state has lost about 68,600 quail in the past 10 years.

Hunters are noticing the drop-off, she said. Five years ago, there were 34,395 Oklahomans who hunted quail; in 2011 half that number, or 17,341, hunted quail.

She said it's estimated each quail hunter spent $485 for supplies and other expenses, which meant a loss of about $8.3 million in sales.

“It's just going to get worse if we don't do something about it,” McIver said.

Alternative fuel source

Participants at the hearing suggested the Eastern red cedars could be used as a power source to replace or supplement coal-powered electrical generating plants in the state. But the availability of natural gas and coal as well as their reliability make that prospect unlikely, others said.

Some said the state could follow through on a measure legislators passed in 2010 that recommends that 15 percent of the state's power supply comes from renewable resources, such as solar, wind or biomass, and build a power plant at a prison or other state building that uses cedar chips as fuel.

Paul Todd, president of the Aromatic Cedar Association who has been working 17 years trying to find a use for the Eastern red cedar, said a proposal to build a multimillion-dollar plant in Enid to process oil and fuel shows promise.

An Oklahoma City group is proposing to use a process to heat shredded 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. The plant would extract the cedar oil, which makes up about 3 percent of the weight of the tree, and then have a second stage that would convert the biomass material to make hydrocarbon fuels such as jet fuel and diesel. It's possible to get about 200 gallons of jet fuel from each ton of wood.

Erupting into flames

Wildfires that spread across at least four counties this past summer increased in intensity when they came across the red cedars, which because of drought conditions 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 of how much danger the trees pose and how fast they are overtaking the land. Fire at one time was the main deterrent for 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.

“The removal of fire from the environment has enhanced the ability of cedar to proliferate, but on the other hand if we were to use that we would at least slow this progression down.”

Thralls 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. Because of that, some groups have had trouble getting insurance to cover possible damages.

Morrissette said it's bothersome to set fire to a resource that has potential value.

“It's like we're burning money,” he said.