Milling or burning? Two experts offer differing views on managing eastern red cedar

Milling or burning? Two experts offer differing views on managing eastern red cedar

A lack of a reliable buyers in western Nebraska means a local lumberman must travel to make money off eastern red cedar.

The most cost-effective way to manage eastern red cedar is fire management, says Andy Moore, Loess Canyons coordinating wildlife biologist with Pheasants Forever.

Not so, according to saw mill operator John Peterson. When he sees a controlled burn, he says, “There goes a couple hundred thousand dollars down the drain, or more, you know.”

Some land may be worth cutting cedar from if the terrain is accessible enough, Peterson said.

Moore’s job as a wildlife biologist involves working with ranchers, mainly in the Loess Canyons south of Brady, to manage stands of eastern red cedar.

Peterson owns Peterson Sawmill Services. He and his wife, Rebecca, operate a sawmill and wood barn east of Stapleton. They have been in the lumber business since the 1960s.

Both men’s jobs involve removing eastern red cedar off the land, but take very different approaches to how the trees are removed.

A member of the juniper family, the eastern red cedar is a native plant but has been labeled invasive because of how fast it grows and reproduces.

Its growth was often checked by wildfires during pre-European settlement of the West. Thanks to modern fire prevention practices, lack of fires now mean there’s nothing killing off seedlings.

According to a 2020 article in Nebraskaland Magazine, red cedar is “one of the greatest threats to Nebraska livestock production.”

When red cedar is left to grow unchecked, rangeland productivity decreases by 75%, replacing grassland with trees, according to the article.

Depending on the acreage a rancher is dealing with, combined with government grants, waiting awhile for harvesters to cut trees may not be worth it to some landowners. So they opt for controlled burning.

“You go to the Sandhills where there’s not many cedar trees and you could get a whole ranch cut for like $5 to $10 an acre and manage all the cedar that’s on the whole place,” Moore said. “But when we get fire breaks, it could be up to like $800 an acre. So it’s just a huge wide variance in the cost. But the overriding theme is that it’s expensive.”

A fire break is a mandatory lane of trees that need cutting prior to initiating a controlled burn. They keep the fire contained and the public safe. Moore said trees can be large and thick in the canyons where they usually have to cut.

Peterson estimates that with a small team of laborers and his cutting equipment, he could clear 400 acres in 10 days. He said burning can even increase the window of time before the grass re-establishes itself as fires reset the ecology of a prairie.

Peterson said it takes about three years between preparation and recovery for a controlled burn for grassland to be useful for grazing. If he cuts down these treed areas, the land can start growing grass almost immediately and become productive sooner.

But Moore said it only takes a couple of weeks to a couple of months for the grass to recover after the burn.

“Our prairies are extremely resilient to fire,” he said.

The general method has been to wait until midsummer when the grass gets knee high. Moore says fire is a necessity because without fire, “many grasslands will succeed to cedar monocultures.”

Moore said prep work, such as cutting fire breaks, can take years.

“We usually tell landowners to prepare for a three-year plan. Some are more. Occasionally they get done in less,” he said.

There’s just a lack of labor for cutting the lumber down, Peterson says, but there’s good money in the trees. He pays his workers $20 per hour.

That material is not only good for lumber, but the slash can also be used as burning material in bioreactors and there’s still the fencepost market in Colorado.

Moore also said on top of the relatively high costs of tree removal, contractors in other states, like Kansas or South Dakota, make more in profit from wood harvesting. Moore said he’s not sure why people don’t harvest red cedar or pay as much to clear cut land like other places, but the market for it is a “nebulous thing.”

“So for, say, a rancher to, even if they have that land paid off, to make their tax payment, try and run cows, make a profit, I mean, it’s just not possible if they’re paying that much money to manage cedars,” he said.

Moore said he figured mechanical removal in the Loess Canyons south of Brady canyons costs about $330 per acre.

Moore figures the high upfront costs, not only of the work but also the expensive equipment, eats heavily into profits of tree harvesting.

“You’re talking about land that may only be worth $700 to $100 an acre,” said Moore.

A 2016 study published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said costs for mechanical removal can range anywhere from $120 to $1,000 per acre, at an average of $600 per acre.

The study said it would cost nearly $23 million per year to mechanically clear 38,000 acres of forest annually just to stay even with expansion observed from 2005 to 2010.

The same study estimated eastern red cedar generates approximately 345,000 tons of new wood every year and the total estimated biomass was 8.9 million tons. At an estimated value between $45 and $65 per ton, annual growth in red cedar could indefinitely generate between $16 million and $22 million in wood chip sales.

Peterson said 80% to 90% of the wood he cuts anymore is eastern red cedar.

He mainly works with cattle ranchers who want their land cleared for grazing, mainly at no charge.

“People hear we cut cedar, so we’ll come up and saw it,” Rebecca said.

The Petersons say farmers generally welcome the free tree removal off their land and the Petersons are happy to get free resources for their milling work.

While they have had a long career at harvesting timber and selling it, he said many other people set up shop and fail to retain a foothold in the lumber market in the area.

“There’s a guy come here from British Columbia 25 years ago,” said Peterson. “And he had all this fancy equipment. He went broke. And then there was another guy, he was shipping to Clarks from like Brady, Nebraska. Well, I don’t know what happened, but anyway, they were chipping, and there was a bystander or something, and they got hit by some of the stuff and like took his eye out. So he got sued, and they went out of business. There’s been probably 10 in the last 30 years that have come and gone.”

John Peterson’s timber hauler sits idle as a busted engine would cost him $10,000 in repairs. This machine can haul tons of wood at a time when running.

One reason the Petersons have stayed in business so long is through diversification of their labor beyond milling and selling lumber.

Sometimes that involves traveling long distances to transport or install fence posts. Sometimes that involves construction projects. One time, hunters paid them to do some lane clearing for deer.

Often, they incorporated the wood they harvest into contracted projects. The tree they cut down and milled yesterday becomes tomorrow’s coffee table or deck they’re hired to build.

They could still transport fence posts to sell in Colorado, but stopped for retirement reasons.

He also used to transport eastern red cedar by the ton to a wood chip factory in Clarks.

In an ironic turn of events, the increase in supply throughout Nebraska led to cheaper prices offered to sellers. Businesses that deal in wood could just harvest the cedars in their backyard and the cost of transportation ate into profits for someone as remote as Peterson.

A lack of a reliable source of buyers in western Nebraska combined with lowered selling prices in the east means the Petersons are only left with milling the lumber to sell as deck board or firewood.

The demand for eastern red cedar fence posts in Colorado stayed steady, Peterson said. Peterson said that’s because the logs don’t rot as fast there as they do in Nebraska.

Nebraskans prefer hedge wood fence posts, wood from the Osage orange.

Here, hedge wood posts need replacing every 20 years, while red cedar posts needs replacing every 10.

“(Coloradans) don’t like hedge because it’s crooked,” he said. “The hedge posts grow real crooked. And you can’t put a staple in them. You have to tie them with wire.”

He has photo albums full of his and Rebecca’s woodworking projects, from tables, to charcuterie boards, even a coffin shaped urn case commissioned by a couple.

They have pictures of working in Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“I went to St. Pat’s (St. Patrick’s High School), and I don’t know why I studied forestry. You know, and everyone thought I was crazy,” Peterson said.

After he got out of high school, he began cutting wood and selling it.

Peterson said while harvesting trees in Nebraska can be profitable, work isn’t always easy to come by. He said he’s always thinking of ways to make the wood useful so he can sell it and keep cutting wood.