Eastern Red Cedar Could Threaten State Education Funding

Eastern red cedar is native to Nebraska but is invading grasslands and pasture. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Prescribed fire is one of the main tools used to combat the spread of eastern red cedar. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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October 11, 2016 - 6:45am

The biggest landowner in Nebraska gives the profits it earns from ranching and farming to help fund public education. But a native plant could threaten those profits.


When Nebraska became a state, about five percent of its land was set aside to help fund public education. While half those parcels were sold early on, the rest are managed today by the Nebraska Board of Educational Lands and Funds.

“Last year we generated over $53 million, and that was paid into the general school fund. And that's approximately $130 per student in the state of Nebraska," said Kelly Sudbeck, CEO and Executive Secretary of BELF. The agency is the largest landowner in the state, with about 1.2 million acres. Much of that land is leased for grazing. In recent years, it’s faced a growing threat.

“Unfortunately we're being attacked by a native son,” said Sudbeck, referring to eastern red cedar trees, which are native to Nebraska, but have spread far beyond their original range. Sudbeck said while his agency has been aware of cedar growth since the 1980s, many people didn’t consider it a big problem until recently.

“Cedar’s kind of like compounded interest. Although in a negative way. With compounded interest, of course, as your account grows, the interest grows exponentially,” Sudbeck said. His agency needs to address the cedar invasion before it starts to reduce grazing profits, said Sudbeck. Otherwise, “it will, eventually take over your pasture, and essentially render your property, for all intents and purposes, valueless.”

Nebraskans have planted cedars across the state for more than a century as windbreaks, to provide shelter for animals and to reduce erosion. Thanks to that growing seed source, cedar trees have taken off on their own across Nebraska’s grasslands and pasture.

“The removal of fire from the Great Plains has really allowed it to spread,” said Dirac Twidwell, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who studies fire and rangeland ecology. This year Twidwell’s students studied the threat posed to public education funding by cedar. The trees are notoriously sensitive to fire, which is why, prior to large-scale human settlement of the plains, cedar was mostly confined to canyons or rugged terrain where fire couldn’t reach it.

“They were a rare plant and as a rare plant they have benefits, but when they spread into these environments we see the cost. And that includes funding for public education,” said Twidwell.

From 2005 to 2010, the U.S. Forest Service estimated Nebraska’s eastern red cedar forest increased by 35,000 acres annually.

“So we see a loss of a lot of things that we like from those systems. Grassland biodiversity, wildfire suppression potential, cattle profitability,” Twidwell said. And it’s not just in Nebraska. Multiple states to the south have seen significant loss of grazing revenue as a result of cedar invasion.

“In the southern plains they're spending $500 to $2000 an acre when you have established cedar woodlands to go back to grassland,” Twidwell said. Landowners across the state have been dealing with cedar for years. Mark Alberts is a farmer and rancher near Gothenburg.

“You might have a section of grass and people say, well grandpa ran 80 pair on that section and my dad ran 80 pair on that section. So I can run 80 pair on that section, but there's not a section of grass anymore. Cedar trees are just taking over,” Alberts said. He’s also burn boss with the Central Platte Rangeland Alliance, one of several prescribed burn associations in the state: a group of local landowners who help each other conduct burns on their property to get rid of cedar and improve the quality of the grass.

“When we do a burn, if we can get 90 percent of the cedar trees killed, that's pretty good success rate,” Alberts said. Like Alberts, the board of educational lands and funds wants to stay ahead of the cedar growth on their rangeland. The agency requires their lessees to get permission to plant cedar trees, and it’s more than doubled its cedar removal budget in the last six years.

“At this point we consider that cost effective versus the potential of losing the grazing revenue from essentially all of our rangeland,” Sudbeck said. Denny Oelschlager is coordinating prescribed burns on state trust properties, with plans to burn between two to three thousand acres next year to tackle eastern red cedar.

“The prairie was a fire-tolerant system for hundreds of years. And our predecessors learned how to use fire as part of their management practices,” Oelschlager said. “So it's kind of going back to working with nature as opposed to working against it.”

Oelschlager said they’re working with local prescribed burn associations as much as possible. That cooperation between neighboring landowners makes fires easier to manage, more cost effective, and keeps cedar from continuing to spread.

The profits from state trust lands only make up about one percent of the total funding for Nebraska’s public education. But because they own so much land across the state, their management can help make an impact on cedar. Still, Oelschlager said it will take years of continued prescribed burning to rein in the plant.

“There's a lot of challenges ahead, politically, socially, culturally, in terms of getting prescribed fire up to a level where we're going to start to turn the problem around. We're not anywhere near that yet,” Oelschlager said.

But it’s a start: according to the Nebraska Forest Service, the state’s cedar area decreased by 30,000 acres in the last couple years—as a result of mechanical harvesting and prescribed fire.

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