The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

April 6, 2013

Burning up an opportunity

Officials would like to see invasive red cedar used in some way, instead of just destroyed

By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — The Eastern red cedar tree is many things to many people.

To those with allergies it is a source of misery. To landowners it reduces productivity and land value. To wildlife conservationists it represents a threat to bird and animal habitat, as well as to native plants. And to rural homeowners, it is a fire hazard.

But to Craig McKinley, professor and extension forester with the Oklahoma State University department of Natural Resources Ecology and Management, it represents something of potential value.

“I think we should utilize the resource,” said McKinley. “To me there is something sad about burning up good, solid wood.”

Eastern red cedar is categorized as an invasive species, but McKinley points out it is a native species that has become invasive because it is so prolific. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native in all but four of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, according to Oklahoma Forestry Services.

“The reason we have a problem now is, as humans, we have controlled fire,” McKinley said. “And with the control of fire came the elimination of the natural environmental control of Eastern red cedar.”

In terms of ground cover, McKinley said, Eastern red cedar is most prevalent in what he called the “second tier” of Oklahoma counties, those on a rough line from Woodward County to Osage County.

“That is where you have the highest degree of ground cover,” he said.

A red cedar task force formed in 2002 by Oklahoma Secretaries of Agriculture and Environment to study the problem estimated that, by this year, annual state economic losses resulting from the proliferation of the Eastern red cedar would total $447 million.

“The problem becomes encroachment on land that people want to use for something else,” McKinley said. “There is simply too much red cedar.”

Eastern red cedar also robs the land of a commodity becoming more and more scarce in these times of drought: water. Research by OSU found one cedar tree can take up to 30 gallons of water per day from the soil, while one acre of cedars can absorb 55,000 gallons of water in a year.

Dan Stidham, area forester with Oklahoma Forestry Services, is concerned about the impact of Eastern red cedars in riparian zones, ecosystems that occur between land and rivers or streams.

 “Red cedars take over and limit the natural regeneration of pioneer species like cottonwood and willow,” he said. “They come into the area and reduce those trees’ ability to regenerate naturally.”

Another negative impact of the Eastern red cedar, Stidham said, is the “loss of habitat for wildlife that utilize those tree species.”

Cottonwoods are water-loving trees themselves, Stidham said, and they often lose out in competition with Eastern red cedars.

“They (cedars) intercept that water as it starts to be absorbed into the soil profile,” Stidham said. “They use a considerable amount of water each day before cottonwood trees can use it.”

Take a drive along the Cimarron River, Stidham said, and you’ll see the effects of the Eastern red cedar on cottonwoods.

“You’ll see a decline in the size and number of large cottonwood trees,” he said. “They can’t compete with the cedars.”

Controlling the Eastern red cedar is easier when they are small, Stidham said, “waist-high or shorter.” Then they can be controlled by clipping or prescribed burning.

“Fire controlled it early in our history,” McKinley said. “That’s the best way to cheaply and effectively control red cedar.”

Burning the Eastern red cedar is best done “under the right conditions and managed by the right people,” McKinley said. “You have to have a burn plan. Just to go out and strike a match, you need to stay away from that process.”

The trees also can be controlled mechanically, cutting them down with chainsaws or knocking them down with bulldozers.

“Once they get taller than four or five feet high, they are not controlled by fire, then you have to turn to mechanical removal,” said Stidham.

“Some folks out of Texas use a chipper and chip it up right where it is,” he said. “If you are going to use a chipper to chip it up, you might as well collect the chips and use them as mulch.”

The trees also can be treated with herbicides, McKinley said, but that is a costly, time-consuming process.

“It involves individual tree treatment in most cases,” he said. “Some are used. My dad went at them with herbicides, but he was retired, he had the time.”

Oklahoma Forestry Services estimates the cost of controlled burns to eradicate Eastern red cedar at $20 to $25 per acre, while mechanical removal methods can cost hundreds of dollars per acre.

The inherent problems with the Eastern red cedar has attracted the attention of one state legislator, Rep. Richard Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City, who introduced three measures relating to the tree in this year’s legislative session. One, HB-1513, would provide training for non-violent state inmates to harvest the trees. That passed the House and has gone to the Senate.

Other measures introduced by Morrissette would further eradication efforts, while another would use harvested Eastern red cedar trees to supply power to state-run facilities.

McKinley is all for using the Eastern red cedar, rather than simply knocking them down or burning them up.

“One of the more popular ways is mulch,” he said. “There are no mulch manufacturers in the state, however.”

Eastern red cedar shavings also can be used in the oil patch, as a lost circulation material, used to slow the loss of drilling mud in fractures or permeable soil formations.

“It is utilized as a component of drilling mud, placed down the oil well hole through a pipe,” said McKinley.

Cedar wood is aromatic and repels moths, so it often is used as a lining in cedar closets or cedar chests. It also resists rot, so is often used in fence posts. McKinley said he heard of one man who fashioned a casket from red cedar wood.

OSU researchers are developing a particle board made from Eastern red cedar, McKinley said.

“It has a similar quality as southern pine,” he said. “It is a possibility.”

Eastern red cedar oil, McKinley said, makes up about “2 to 3 percent of the weight of the tree,” which is used in medicines and cosmetics.

“Those are some opportunities,” he said. “What we have to do is match up the resource with someone willing to invest in a commercial facility.”

McKinley said he has talked to several companies about turning Eastern red cedar into wood pellets to be used as heating fuel.

Last fall an Oklahoma City firm, Sun Rays 2 Oil, proposed building a $200 million plant in Enid to extract red cedar oil from shredded trees, then turn it into jet fuel or diesel.

That project is presently on the back burner, said Brent Kisling, executive director of Enid Regional Development Alliance.

“We have been working with them the past several months on setting up a plant in Enid,” Kisling said. “We were very close to making an announcement about the plant, but there were several fatal flaws in their analysis of the logistics of transporting the trees to Enid.”

Kisling said he expects the company to announce it is going to build its plant in another Oklahoma city, but he is hopeful it will build a secondary plant here.

“That is definitely a project we continue to work very closely on,” he said.

Sooner or later, however, Kisling said he expects some sort of facility that utilizes the Eastern red cedar to locate here.

“That is one of those industries that I have no doubt that someday there will be some kind of conversion plant in Enid,” he said. “When you’ve got a tree that is claiming over 700 acres a day in the state, you’ve got to find a way to control it, and adding value to it is the best way to do it.”

McKinley agrees.

“Most people just try to get rid of them,” McKinley said. “It would be better if we can control them and utilize them.”