Oklahoma

Economy, Energy, Natural Resources: Policy to People

Red Cedars Aren’t as Thirsty as We Thought, But They Still Suck

This 2011 fire in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge was fueled in part by red cedars.

Tugnutt / Flickr

This 2011 fire in the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge was fueled, in part, by red cedars.

Eastern Red Cedar trees are bad for Oklahoma. The volatile oils they contain can cause the trees to explode during wildfires, spreading embers over hundreds of yards. They crowd out other plants, force wildlife off their habitats, and hoard rainfall — which is bad news during a drought.

As The Journal Record‘s Brian Brus reports, it’s been said each red cedar can guzzle dozens of gallons of water each day:

Last year, for example, a county Republican Party organization warned in an email that the invasive tree could consume an overwhelming 50 to 60 gallons of water a day, making drought even worse.

But he red cedar’s gluttony for water has been greatly exaggerated, according to researchers at Oklahoma State University, the paper reports. The real number is a seemingly meager six gallons per day:

That['s] not really good news, however… That daily average is bad enough to ruin land for other agricultural uses, said Rod Will, silviculture professor in the OSU Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management.

The paper talked with Brent Kisling, executive director of the Aromatic Cedar Association, who says the trees use all the water they can get, and whether it’s six gallons — or 30 — the effect is still reductions in runoff water for streams.

Addressing the growing issue isn’t easy. Kisling says some association members cut down red cedars for lumber, but that there’s little money to be made doing that. The Oklahoma legislature has gotten involved, too:

Legislators have responded to rural residents’ concerns with proposals that include prisoner-driven eradication programs and market development for cedar products, usually low-value items such as mulch and shingles.

… “We’re going to have to find a high-margin product to generate enough interest in the market to bring this problem under control,” [Kisling] said. “We’ve got to keep looking.”

Red Cedars are native to the northeastern U.S., though they were also commonly planted to serve as windbreaks during the 20th century. Historically, seasonal wildfires helped keep the trees from spreading, but as firefighting techniques improved, red cedars flourished.


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