The Trees We Love to Hate

“I would prefer to find some sort of virus that annually tortures the trees’ immune system, thus rendering them incapable of releasing pollen.  However, that makes them stay living for years, until eventually they are just a bunch of miserable little weeds...then we burn them.”

A friend’s Facebook posting, 2011

The Ubiquitous Cedar

Like the wily coyote, and just as common, the mountain cedar covers the hills of the Texas Hill Country like a verdant blanket of fleece.  This evergreen tree, botanically known as Ashe juniper and commonly called mountain cedar, blueberry juniper, post cedar, Mexican juniper, rock cedar, Ozark white cedar, or just damn cedar, thrives in the limestone and granite soils of the central Texas region and southward into the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico.

Regarded as an invasive weed, this tree has become viewed as the bane of ranchers, developers, water managers and those that suffer from seasonal allergies instigated by this tree: cedar fever.  These trees seem to grow everywhere and anywhere and are hated by most.

Ironically, where our mountain cedars grow in isolated populations outside of the Hill Country, Ashe junipers are viewed as something precious and rare.  Where these populations are found in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, the Arbunkle Mountains of Oklahoma and to the west, in Big Bend National Park, they are often protected and are designated with names such as Ashe’s Juniper Ozark Clifftop Woodland.

The Trees We Love to Hate

Throughout my years of cedar research it always amazes me to hear the snarls emitting from otherwise docile people as they denounce the cedar tree.  To most people, the mere mention of the word cedar is enough to rile the tempers of many Central Texans. I have had lunch bags hurled in my direction, people hang up on me and I have been subjected to hecklers in crowds. Emotions run high whenever I dispute the beliefs of those firmly on the bandwagon of anti-cedarism.  Never in my life have I come across a more determined group of people, than those hell bent on the annihilation of a single species of tree. 

Forget that, in days bygone, the tree was held in high esteem.  Today, most people despise the tree. 

So, why do we hate the tree?  

Well, for starters, there is cedar fever.  You know, the winter time allergy that announces its descent upon our unwary nostrils with massive clouds of cedar pollen that plague us for weeks and months of itchy, snot nosed, feverish allergies?  Oh yes, that.  If ever there was an emotional reason to hate a tree, this would be it.

Another reason people don’t like mountain cedars is because they are so darn persistent and seem to grow everywhere, especially where you don’t want them.  For landowners, getting rid of cedars is a non-ending nightmare.  They clear their cedars to get more grass, and within a few years, everything is cedar again.  

On top of this frustration, landowners were informed about a decade ago that they could no longer clear their cedar because an endangered little bird really needs the bark of cedars to build its tiny nests.  Of course, this wasn’t accurate since the government was only talking about federal land and cedars that were old-growth and therefore at least 25 years old.  But, the reporter, who basically got everything wrong, had his article printed.  This drove everyone into a frenzy, led by the Take Back Texas anti-government group, and stuck like a burr in the side of any landowner out there hell bent on protecting his property rights and developers trying to get higher prices by clear cutting to expose dramatic hilltop views. 

Eventually, the information was corrected and the dust had just begun to settle when the greatest bit of anti-cedar data was put forth.  The results of a new water use study was released that proved in people’s minds without a doubt that cedars are the cause of our water shortage.  That they actually sucking our aquifers dry.  Given that we live in a land that experiences droughts on a regular basis, one can understand the concern about anything that might hinder how much water we have.  

That was when all hell broke loose and the war on cedar, which had been simmering for decades, was finally set to full boil.

Am I Saying Don’t Cut Your Cedars?

When most folks find out I am writing a book on the cedar, they are instantly suspicious.  I can hear them thinking, “Is she with us or against us?”  Most often, they assume I am against them.  They tell me, “Don’t go trying to get us to stop cutting down our cedars.”  

Rest assured, that’s not what I’m saying.  Not all cedars need to stay.

But, not all cedars are bad.

I experienced this reaction from Lee Smith with Texas Parks and Wildlife employee back in 2008.  Mr. Smith had worked to put out a film entitled Texas Water.  The film was excellent, except for the fact that it became increasingly redundant to hear that the only way to improve habitat was to remove one’s cedars.  I sent an email to Lee Smith pointing out that not all cedars are bad.  In particular, I noted the importance of old-growth cedars and cedars on steep slopes.  After taking the time to explain that clearing increases spring flows, Smith defensively wrote, “What is your proposal, that no cedar under any circumstances be cut? How is this beneficial? Is there not a bias here?”   

I never suggested such a thing.  That would be ridiculous, because we have messed up this land and it is our responsibility to get out there and and do some restoring.  The truth is, since I wasn’t on his “anti-cedar team,” and so he assumed the opposite extreme: that I did not want to cut ANY cedars.  He was thinking in black and white, but I was not. 

And that’s our problem.  We want everything to be cut and dry... black and white.  But issues of ecology never are that simple.  Sorry, but it’s true.

We do need balance.  I purposefully chose the title of my book, Cedar, Wanted Dead and Alive, to illustrate the need to balance our urge to whack with the need to keep.

A Hopeful, But Not Unrealistic, Goal

When you finish this book, I do not expect you to suddenly burst out, "Damn, I love that tree" and run outside to hug a pollen ladened cedar.  However, I do hope you will put down this book with a better understanding of why and how this veteran of our Hill Country has become invasive, and why it deserves some respect.  

If this book can get you to see the cedar in a new light, no matter how dim, the Hill Country will benefit.  The cedar is a part of this ecosystem.  Right now our degraded landscape has caused the cedar to be out of balance.  Nature has taken the cedar and used it to clothe the earth, to protect it, much as a bandaid serves to protect an open wound.  Until balance is restored, the cedar will prevail.  Balance is what we need and this demands a balanced approach...including a balanced view of the cedar.

Perhaps you’ll finally come to realize, even if begrudgingly, that not all cedars are bad.

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