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The Eastern Redcedar Problem

juniperusMany Oklahomans are finding themselves coughing, sneezing, and with itchy eyes. The cause is very high pollen levels of eastern redcedar. The eastern redcedar is an invasive species that is very hard to get rid of.

The trees were naturally controlled by fires before settlement. The fires were either naturally caused by lightning or intentionally set by Native Americans. The fires helped keep the trees from spreading as much and kept them more confined to canyons and other places where the fires were less likely to end up.

As the area began to be settled, these fires became less frequent. This allowed the redcedars to become more numerous, grow larger, and more resistant. Prescribed fires are more difficult now, as homes are much closer together and many homeowners are lacking the knowledge to do a proper prescribed burn.  And lately the ongoing drought has made fires too risky much of the time. The shift in land use has also lead to more passive land management.

“The USDA Natural Resources Conservation 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 762 acres a day or nearly 300,000 acres per year. In July of 2002, the NRCS State Technical Committee, consisting of a broad representation of agriculture and conservation organizations, named juniper encroachment the state’s number one natural resource concern. NRCS estimates that $157 million is needed to address current conservation treatments involving juniper control.”- A Strategy for Control and Utilization of Invasive Juniper Species in Oklahoma

The problems from the redcedars are numerous. The redcedars are harming Oklahoma’s wildlife by changing habitats resulting in wildlife species displacement. The redcedars have been known to displace an entire turkey flock when they invade a turkey roost site. It’s thought that the current rate of invasion could cost Oklahoma up to 5,680 bobwhite quail coveys per year.

The trees are also a problem for livestock. If left untreated, a range site with the potential to produce 4,000 pounds per acre of forage may become infested with 200 trees per acre and that number will continue to grow as the years go on.

These trees have extensive root systems and use a lot of water. They also degrade watershed quality by increasing the amount of bare soil and increasing the potential for erosion. Landowners talk about the trees invading the areas around their ponds and greatly decreasing the water in the pond or even draining it.

Redcedars are also a fire hazard as they contain an oil that is highly flammable when dry. The trees also tend to have branches all the way to the ground which increase the likelihood that they would catch on fire during a wildfire. If you have ever seen one of these trees catch on fire, you know that they go up very fast, almost exploding. Many firefighters compare them to propane tanks.

Oklahomans with allergies and asthma are likely feeling the impacts of the redcedars. The pollen levels from the trees are very high right now. The Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic has issued this alert for several days now,

“VERY HIGH RANGE: Allergy alert. The alert is due to cedar pollen. This is an extreme exposure situation. Severe symptoms may be expected in pollen sensitive individuals. The more seriously allergic people should be advised to stay indoors as much as possible. This is especially true if a person has pollen sensitivity or allergic bronchial asthma.”

The economic consequences of the continued invasion, if left untreated in Oklahoma by 2013 (according to the Oklahoma State University Rangeland Ecology and Management 2001) is as follows:

  • Catastrophic wildfire- $107 million dollars loss
  • Cattle forage- $205 million dollar loss
  • Lease hunting- $107 million dollar loss
  • Recreation- $17 million dollar loss
  • Water yield- $11 million dollar loss

The redcedars do have many good uses. It’s wood is highly valued, cedarwood oil is used for fragrance, medicine, and more, and they provide food and shelter for wildlife. In 2010, the Eastern Redcedar Registry Board was formed to promote management and utilization of the eastern redcedar. The goal is to create a market for the trees in hopes of slowing their encroachment into nonnative habitats.

Oklahoma Horizon shares how the redcedar is being used in some good ways.

Has the redcedar pollen had you suffering lately? What are your thoughts on the ways Oklahoma is working to use the redcedar to help our economy while helping stop the invasion. Post your thoughts in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Photo Credits: Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, Minnesota. US FWS photo
Sources: FAQs about Eastern Redcedar
A Strategy for Control and Utilization of Invasive Juniper Species in Oklahoma


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Lisa Sharp is the founder of Green Oklahoma. She is passionate about the environment and improving Oklahoma for future generations. She also writes on her personal blog Retro Housewife Goes Green.

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