It's estimated about 462 million Eastern red cedar trees are spread across Oklahoma, which costs the state nearly that much in dollars a year in catastrophic wildfires and the loss of range and hunting lands.
“We'll never get rid of it,” said Craig McKinley, state extension forestry specialist at Oklahoma State University. “It's too adaptive to our environment. I don't think we'll stop it unless we change our culture literally.”
About 45 people spent four hours Wednesday at a public hearing, talking about the predicament of trying to find a use for a renewable resource and how the trees can be harvested at a reasonable rate.
Rep. Richard Morrissette, who tried unsuccessfully this year to get a tax credit for farmers and ranchers who remove the trees from their land, called the hearing.
“Our goal is not to eradicate all cedars as we have worked hard to establish … to define Eastern red cedar as a renewable resource,” said Morrissette, R-Oklahoma City, who has worked to find a use for the tree over the past five years. “Cedar can be harvested and used for biofuel, pesticides, furniture, building material, pharmaceuticals and on and on. We need to continue to develop markets and to reduce wildfire risks and water loss and the infestation and destruction of our grazing land, but this will never happen without increasing the speed at which we harvest cedar.”
Various proposals for using the tree have been suggested the past several years, but none have come to pass because of the cost of building a processing or manufacturing facility or establishing an infrastructure for a steady supply.
In the meantime, Oklahoma is losing an estimated 700 acres per day to the trees, McKinley said. That amounts to 50 Eastern red cedars at least 5 feet tall per acre. It's estimated the trees consume from 4 to 40 gallons of water a day.
About 1.5 million acres of the state's approximately 45 million acres have at least 50 percent Eastern red cedar ground cover, McKinley said.
Range land is especially susceptible to being taken over by the trees, he said.
And it's expensive to have the trees removed. It costs about $700 per day to cut the trees and another $575 a day to stack them.
It's obvious the state isn't taking advantage of what it has, he said.
“It's a renewable resource,” McKinley said. “People like red cedar quality — they like cedar chests and things like that — cedar paneling. The oils are valuable. It's been an issue of the logistics, the nonuniformity of the resource and the lack of production facilities.”
OSU estimates losses
Mike Thralls, executive director of the Oklahoma Conservation Commission, said OSU has estimated the annual economic loss caused by the Eastern red cedar to the state is about $447 million a year.
That doesn't include millions of dollars that will be spent by Oklahomans who are allergic to tree pollen, he said.
Studies have shown that the pollen grain concentrations produced by cedar trees tripled in the state from 1988 to 1996. Cedar pollen continues to increase as the population of the Eastern red cedar spreads into new areas.
Laura McIver, president of the Oklahoma City chapter of Quail Forever, said the spread of the trees is a main factor in the state's declining quail population as they take over the game bird's habitat.
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.