If the eastern redcedar Were a Disease, the CDC Would Quarantine Oklahoma

I had been talking with John Weir, range management and prescribed burn specialist of Oklahoma State University for a while when I asked this question:

“So, what exactly is the proper way to spell Eastern Redcedar?  Do I capitalize both words or what?”

He answered in a way I hadn’t expected:

“No. Neither.  You capitalize neither word.  We in the forestry and range ecology areas don’t give it the respect of capital letters.”

I laughed, but then confirmed with him that indeed, you really DON’T capitalize the tree’s name.  Although his answer was delivered in a dryly humorous way, he was also serious.  To capitalize the species name would mean that there would be some hierarchical value placed in the invasive juniper species (Juniperus virginiana) in Oklahoma.  But by and large, right now it’s just a problem.

How bad is this problem we see along the fence lines of every thoroughfare in the state?  Well, pretty bad.  Quite possibly, epidemic.

In 2002 the OK Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry established the “Redcedar Task Force,” charged with exploring issues surrounding the species and “developing a long-term strategy to deal with the problems created by the juniper infestation, estimated to be expanding at 762 acres per day.”  After the initial meeting, the task force concluded that “the negative impacts of juniper encroachment on our natural resources, native wildlife populations, the health of our citizens and our economic potential are unacceptable.”

The report is 32 pages long and is a fairly easy and straightforward read.  The USDA Natural Resources Conversation Service (NRCS) estimates that eight million acres in Oklahoma are currently infested with at least 50 juniper trees per acre.  The encroachment is increasing at an estimated rate of 300,000 acres per year.  Finally, (and remember, this was in 2002) they estimated that $157 million was needed to address current conservation treatments.


Even worse? They estimated that in order to RESTORE lands already suffering from encroachment, as well as to maintain lands free of further problems, landowners will need to aggressively treat 2 to 4 million acres per year.  Economic losses from not managing juniper encroachment were projected to be $447 million by 2013.  That’s next year, right?

So, what are the facts and the urban legends surrounding this problematic juniper, and what can we do about it?

First, the facts:

  • Contrary to popular belief, the eastern redcedar IS actually a native species to Oklahoma.  However, the original patterns of growth only included the lower levels where water sources were present, such as creek banks.  Over time, the species has been spread to an epidemic level because of many reasons, one of the main being prairie fire suppression.
  • Another big reason for spread is birds.  Birds eat the juniper berries then spread the seeds through their waste in a naturally occurring way.  You can especially see how this is evident along fence lines.  Birds light on fence lines, dispose of their waste, then one year later, a one foot tree is growing.
  • The species IS harmful to wildlife, however.  As encroachment grows, natural range land disappears.  This has been found to be especially problematic for species like the bobwhite quail who suffer because of the growth.
  • The eastern redcedar is only “highly flammable” when it is dry.  In fact, a fully nourished and hydrated tree is quite difficult to get started burning as the deep greenery is full of moisture.  However, when the tree is in a dried out state, they become what we know as “fireballs.”  The technical term for this is that they “crown out” when burning.  In other words, the flames travel from the ground all the way to the top of the tree quickly.
  • The species is NOT like the heads of Hydra that grow back in pairs if you cut them down.  Rather, if you cut them down, they’re gone.  Many trees do NOT die when cut down.  Rather, they simply re-root and re-shoot and continue to grow in a different form.  For the redcedar, however, this isn’t possible.  If you cut it down, you’re doing us all a favor.
  • You will NOT be spreading pollen and reseeding other trees if you burn or cut down the redcedars.  They grow as either male or female trees, and they pollinate in the spring.  But even if you were to cut them down during the height of pollination season, the risk would be miniscule in return for the positive action of tree removal.
  • Speaking of pollination, the redcedar pollen is a real problem for human health in our state.  And, according to Weir, our citizens used to get a break at least sometimes during the year due to seasonal change. But now that the encroachment has spread upwards across much of Kansas, and down through Texas, our bodies are being subjected to higher and higher doses of pollen…and the change of wind direction doesn’t mean relief.
  • Wildfire is problem for several reasons.  Although the best way to handle abating the junipers is to conduct a prescribed burn, many property owners are not trained on how to take care of this task.  They are fearful that the fires could get out of control.  And, if the trees are taller than about eight feet high, they are in a much more difficult category, not only being dangerous but being too big to safely set up a prescribed burn.  When they reach the large, mature and “over 8 feet tall” stage, they have to be manually removed. Further, many communities across the state have NO zoning requirements for the trees regarding distance from structures, so there could potentially be a “fuel ring” circling any building or home with no regulations in place to change the potential catastrophe.
  • And what about the water issue? Okies can throw around some large numbers (15 gallons per day; 50 gallons per day) when talking about how much our redcedars drink.  But here’s a quote for you from a state document with a firm answer: “Whether water sales is a good idea or not, our water has proven to be perhaps our state’s most valuable resource. Without success of the Eastern Red Cedar Initiative, the trees will continue to gulp down pure water at a rate of 55,000 gallons per infested acre per year with each tree drinking 30 gallons every day! The overall loss to state resources averages a whopping $202 million annually.

Weir states that prescribed burn and range specialists don’t exist in high enough numbers, so there are currently programs in place where landowners are being taught how to conduct these burns, how to share equipment, and how to rotate among properties in a cooperative fashion so there is enough manpower to complete the task, and enough support to do it safely.  He “had old numbers…” but estimates that it costs from about $6 to $20 per acre to manage a prescribed burn, whereas it could cost upwards of $60 to $120 per acre to have the trees manually removed.

So, are there any POSITIVE benefits or good news related to this issue?  Yes, but it could be better if you decide to help.

First, please know that there is an “Aromatic Cedar Association,” organized to find benefits to the trees and produce positive economic impacts.  Biomass as fuel is one possibility.  The oil as an aromatic product is another.  The trees can be used as lumber, and the wood is workable and good quality.  Cedar is in demand, and the lumber industries are working with professionals in the state to find better ways to harvest the lumber.  And, the mulch from these trees is extremely good to use for a variety of mulching purposes.

Other initiatives include a group making redcedar wreaths for veterans graves, initiatives to allow people to cut them for free Christmas trees, and other ideas.  For example, the Oklahoma Forestry Services is managing a fairly new Oklahoma Eastern Redcedar Registry Board. (Yes, it’s capitalized because it’s the NAME of the board, okay?)  The law passed in 2010 required that the Board set up a revolving fund, a license plate program, and several other initiatives designed to help landowners and citizens turn the problem around.

In fact, you can apply for YOUR license plate right now by clicking this beautiful photo:

But what else can you do?

Well, one of the biggest problems cited by specialists and those within the areas studying this problem is this: “People don’t really know how bad the problem is, they don’t take care of their land by choice or because of money, or they’re afraid to burn because it might get out of control.”

I can see how all of these issues would be true. And, although I have heard from a few of our readers that financial assistance is available to those who want to cost share the clearing of their land, I couldn’t find anything about it.  I would imagine the best people to ask about financial assistance are those involved with the redcedar initiative.

What I personally would like to see accomplished?  Simply the spread and awareness of this as a problem across our entire state.  I hope you share this post with others.  I hope you personally use an eastern redcedar for your 2012 Christmas Tree, if you can use a fresh tree in your family, and of course…if you celebrate Christmas.

I hope that you cut down the small tress you see wherever you go.  One resource asserted that most trees can be managed with simply hydraulic  clippers or even hand shears.

You know, I’ve heard people around here say, “Well, I leave a few of these cedars around because they’re evergreens and they’re pretty in the wintertime.”  I guess what I would also ask is this: “Would you please reconsider your need for aesthetic qualities across your landscape when it comes to redcedars?”

We ALL need to help if this problem is going to be turned around.  And regardless of all the positive initiatives starting up right now, by and large the trees are a problem.  A big problem.  In some articles they’re referred to as the “sleeping giant.”

In my opinion, the Giant is already awake, and it’s eating up our state.  So…will you please join me?  Let’s all become giant killers together, okay?

One last thing…I have three on my property.  Tonight, I’m going to talk to Hubby and make a plan to get rid of them.  I can’t write this without doing my part.

Now…what can YOU do?


P.S. We’re not the only area in this problematic boat.   Nebraska put this video together – it’s very educational and shared a summary of some of what I’ve just written:



22 thoughts on “If the eastern redcedar Were a Disease, the CDC Would Quarantine Oklahoma”

  1. 3 years later… I am having a hard time finding a source for OK-made eastern redcedar mulch. Any ideas?

      1. Hi, TT: If your teacher has required that you research eastern red cedars, then I’m not sure your project is THAT stupid… Have a good one, Red Dirt Kelly

      1. Hi, cool guy. It’s clear to the editorial staff that you are indeed hungry for cookies and milk.

  2. Kelly, the program that NRCS sponsors to help with red cedar control/eradication is called EQIP: Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It covers more than red cedar programs, however, and is administered primary on a county-by-county basis. Here’s a link that provides a good starting place: http://www.ok.nrcs.usda.gov/eqip/index.html

    EQIP funds are on a cost-share basis, so the landowner has to have enough funds to match what the government is going to kick in, which can be problematic if the infestation is bad enough. For one of those machines on the video, you are looking about a minimum of $1600/day for the service provided (north central OK rates.)

    1. Nancy – thanks so much for sharing that information. I couldn’t find the right search words to pull anything up. Greatinfo! Yes, I was actually thinking about that when watching the video. The gentleman had lots to say about the equipment, but didn’t mention the cost.

  3. What an eye opener! We’ve known it was a scourge but had no idea how big. LOL Our Christmas tree this year was a cedar took from the forest next door, rather than a pine or something else. One down, three hundred to go! : ) Great article, Kelly! Thanks for doing all that research for us!

  4. We make and sell several crafts using the Oklahoma red cedar. It is not hard to find people who eagerly give us permission to cut down the trees we need for our craft. Our contribution to the effort may be slight but it feels good to play a part of the solution.
    -Okie Dirt

    1. Lisa, NO positive contribution is slight! Thanks for all you do…I’ll bet your work is beautiful!

  5. If anyone is interested in making wreaths from eastern redcedar, the Fort Reno Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution would be delighted to show them how. The group started making wreaths to be laid on veteran graves in 2009. In 2011, 450 wreaths were made. The goal for 2012 is to make 1000. This is a wonderful way to utilize redcedar and to honor our veterans.

    1. Regina – this is a great idea and I’m glad you commented to the share the information. I f you think about it…when it gets close to that time of the year, please let us know and we’ll help spread the word!

      1. Many thanks…I will take you up on that offer and contact you again in the fall. We appreciate all the help that we can get. GL

  6. “The species is NOT like the heads of Medusa that grow back in pairs if you cut them down. Rather, if you cut them down, they’re gone.”

    You mean the heads of a Hydra. Medusa turns people to stone by looking at them and was killed by having her head removed by Perseus. Hydra heads, however, return in pairs.


    1. YES – THANK you, Internet Man! I’m on the “edit run” right now. P.S. I love ” – nerd”s. They make our work so much better. Bless you.

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