None of you? Yeah, me neither, until my sophomore year biology teacher would preach about how cedar trees were destroying the natural prairies of Nebraska. This made me think, “Could such a common tree that I had grown up around cause harm to Nebraskan ecosystems, where it seems as though it is native?” Well, people, the answer is yes. Cedar trees take space and water from the native grasses and it can displace the native bird and mammal species of the Plains.
First, cedar trees, specifically Redcedar trees, not only cause damage to the ecosystems but the large woodlands that cedar trees can become cause fire hazards to the Plains and surrounding communities. Cedar trees are a very flammable plant because they contain a substance called cedrol. Brace yourselves for a quick chemistry lesson. Cedrol is an alcoholic subset of terpene molecules found in cypress and juniper. Terpene molecules are very volatile, meaning they have a high vapor pressure and are very flammable. Since cedrol is so volatile, it causes the wood to catch fire, and the pine cones can even become flaming weapons that spread fires (see The Hobbit when the dwarves are throwing flaming pinecones at their attackers). Cedars can also spread thousands of embers downwind, which can then spread the fire faster.
Cedars also inhibit the growth and development of the native grasses found on the Plains. According to the Nebraska Invasive Species Program, there is a 90% decrease in plant diversity found under cedar woodlands. Plants are unable to thrive under these woodlands because of lack of sunlight, water, and cedar trees produce a toxin that can reduce the growth of plants near the trees. Cedar trees can also reduce small mammal diversity by 75 percent if there is only a 40 percent coverage of cedar trees. Similarly, at a 25 percent coverage of cedars, many bird species are displaced because they do not know how to adapt to the cedar trees, yet. These trees can also cause some species to become endangered. One of these species is the American burying beetle. This beetle thrives in the grasslands that have become overgrown with cedar trees.
Cedar trees can also affect producers and ranchers that use prairie land for grazing land. Cedar trees can reduce livestock and wildlife forage by 75 percent. This lack of forage can cause ranchers to see an 80 percent drop in their profit. This can also lead to less funding for public education that is made by grazing leases. Grazing leases are agreements between two producers that allow one producer to graze his/her cattle on the land. Funding from these grazing leases is very important to the operation of public education in Nebraska. The School Land Trust of Nebraska leases land to ranchers to raise revenue to fund public schooling. Time and money that must be spent clearing cedar trees from these lands, is time and money that is not being spent on the public education of Nebraska’s youth.
Cedar trees are difficult to get rid of because they grow so quickly and, if they grow larger than 4 feet, then they become much more difficult to remove. Manual removal is very difficult because the trunks can grow very thick and if the trees aren’t removed from the ecosystem, they can pose a risk to the cattle. Chemical removal of the trees is also difficult because with chemicals there is always the risk of contaminating the ecosystem and harming the wildlife and cattle that graze near the trees.
In short, cedar trees are awful. They take resources away from the native species of the Plains, displace native wildlife. They pose a great risk for fires during the dry season, which seems to be every season in Nebraska, and can lead to economic losses for public education.
John Vacek is the third generation on my family farm east of Ravenna. His family raises corn, soybeans, and cattle. He is freshman at UNL, studying environmental restoration science and fisheries and wildlife. Being an advocate for agriculture as always been a priority to John.