Dec 14, 2017

Ecologist Challenges the Myths About Cedar, Texas’ Most Hated Tree

Reporting Texas

Mountain cedars cover the hills of West Austin and much of the Texas Hill Country. An Austin ecologist says the tree has wrongly been cast as an interloper and environmental hazard.

Every year, cedar fever descends on Central Texas, and with it comes a deep-seated, Texas-sized hate for the mountain cedar.

“Cedar fever is not just any allergy,” wrote Patricia Sharpe in a 1986 issue of Texas Monthly. “It’s a scourge, a plague that smites the just and the unjust who have the misfortune to live anywhere in a broad strip of Central Texas that stretches from the Red River to the Rio Grande.”

But red eyes and a scratchy throat aren’t the only reasons many Texans hate this specific tree. Some say the cedar hogs water, depleting our aquifers and outcompeting more desirable trees such as the live oak. Ranchers view it as a noxious weed, an opportunistic plant that has invaded our picturesque Texas grasslands.

“There are so many people that hate this tree,” says ecologist Elizabeth McGreevy, “that they use it for justification to just keep clear-cutting everything around here.”

But their reasons, says McGreevy, are nothing but Texas tall tales, byproducts of a culturally constructed hate.

For the last 20 years, McGreevy has researched our relationship with the mountain cedar, asking why Texans hate this tree so much and how they could possibly regain a more nuanced understanding and a more balanced approach to its management.

As a landscape designer and certified permaculturalist, she hopes to spread the message that while certainly not all cedars are good for the health of the land, not all are bad either.

She is currently writing a book, “Mountain Cedar: Wanted Dead and Alive.” The first of three parts will be released as an e-book in mid-2018.

The mountain cedar in question is actually juniperus ashei, or the Ashe juniper, which is native to Central Texas, though even that fact has been debated. Twenty years ago, McGreevy saw that the City of Austin’s Environmental Criteria Manual listed the mountain cedar among non-native species in Texas. Every developer, real estate agent and landscape architect sees this list, which describes certain trees in the Hill Country and, until recently, was dead wrong about cedar.

“They’ve been here since the last Ice Age,” says McGreevy. “They’re very native, much more than we are.”

When she called the city to report this error with evidence to refute it, McGreevy recalls the city’s response: “We know they’re native. We just don’t want anyone to think they are.”

Although the city did correct the error years later, that was the moment McGreevy realized that there was ideological bias against cedar. That was when she decided to write a book.

Our hate for the cedar is built on many layers of myth, as McGreevy has discovered in her research. For starters, many Texans have the idea that the mountain cedar doesn’t belong in our formerly pure-rangeland landscape.

“There are a lot of people that say this area was mostly grass,” she McGreevy. Yet she has gathered evidence to show that the first settlers in this part of Texas came upon a landscape of both grass and trees, including cedar.  “It was a patchy mosaic of vegetation that was constantly changing.”

Mature mountain cedars grow along a trail at Bull Creek Park in Austin.

In fact, Texans used to hold the cedar in high esteem, claims McGreevy, until we overgrazed the ranges, allowing opportunistic young cedars to replace much of the grassland. Texans’ relationship with the tree began to change through the 20th Century, leading eventually to an all-out war on cedar.

In early 1996, Keith Owens of the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center conducted a study that compared the water usage of a 10-foot mountain cedar with that of a 10-foot live oak. He concluded that the cedar used 33 gallons a day, while the live oak used 19.

McGreevy points out the danger in oversimplifying the study. Firstly, Owen’s cedar was a juvenile tree, which consumes water more aggressively than an older cedar, according to recent research by A&M’s Georgianne Moore. Also, the leaves of the cedar were much denser in comparison to the live oak, which was relatively sparse at the time of Owen’s study.

A similar study conducted between two equally dense trees – or between a cedar and live oak at different stages of life –  would produce varying results.

But no matter, says McGreevy, “That 33-gallon number was immediately transformed into gospel.”

Texans began calling the cedar “a horrendous water hog,” as writer Joe Nick Patoski wrote in 1997. Owen’s study fueled the hate for cedar, giving landowners a new incentive to eradicate this nuisance.

McGreevy has since spoken with Owens, who told her that he never meant his study to be taken as creed. In 2005, he co-authored another report, saying that “more research is needed to fully understand the extent to which shrub control can increase water yields.”

“Brush encroachment is only one change that has affected the health of Texas watershed,” the report says. “It would be valuable to shift the debate away from a focus on brush control and water yields to a broader assessment of best management practices for improving watershed health and sustainability.”

But the followup reports were too nuanced to change public opinion, says McGreevy. It’s easier for Texans to continue hating cedar.

It’s just one myth that McGreevy aims to debunk, particularly as the cedar continues to be a target tin land management debates.

In this year’s legislative session, state Rep. Paul Workman, an Austin Republican, filed House Bill 1572, which would certify that “no restrictions may be made on the ability to remove” a mountain cedar, among a short list of other trees, on the basis that they not only hog water but pose a fire risk. The bill did not come up for a House vote.

Another tall tale fueled by our hate for cedar, McGreevy says. She is researching the flammability of mountain cedar and has found that it is no more flammable than other trees that escaped Workman’s removal list, including even the live oak.

While Texans argue how to best manage our trees, “the thing that needs to be restored is the soil,” says McGreevy.

“I have to teach people to back off of the mountain cedar,” she says, “Stop using it as a scapegoat for the problems that we created.”

To be clear, McGreevy does not intend to push a tree-hugging, Greenpeace agenda onto private-property-rights-protecting Texans. Rather, she aims to deconstruct our hate for the cedar and, in doing so, deconstruct how Texans interact with the natural world around them. There are times to cut cedar, she asserts, and times to let it grow, even when it does give us an allergic reaction two months out of the year.

“We want everything to be cut and dry, black and white,” she says. “But issues of ecology are never that simple.”