Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Editorial: Red-cedar threat to school funding

The eastern red cedar tree can bring benefits to parts of Nebraska in the form of windbreaks and neighborhood landscaping. But in many areas of the state, the species is an unwanted invader.
The trees are highly flammable and can spread rapidly. Red cedar infestation was a central factor behind the wave of nearly 1,600 Nebraska wildfires in 2012 that burned more than 500,000 acres and cost more than $12 million to contain.
Wildfires along the Niobrara River east of Valentine that year destroyed more than 76,000 acres over a 10-day period.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service says that red cedars “can spread across an area and convert prairie into a dense forest.” This transformation displaces existing plants, including native shortgrasses, and reduces habitat for wildlife.
This threat is particularly a concern for the cattle industry. A new report from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln points to how the transformation of rangelands into red cedar woodlands has been particularly damaging to livestock production in parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
Additionally, the UNL study notes, the cedar- based degradation of grazing land means Nebraska’s public schools will receive less funding.
The Nebraska Board of Educational Lands & Funds, the largest landowner in the state, owns and manages nearly 1.26 million acres of agricultural land, leasing it to farmers and ranchers. More than 950,000 acres are grasslands that generate income for public schools from grazing fees.
Over the past 15 years, such payments to Nebraska public schools have totaled $573 million.
If the red cedar infestation is unchecked, the UNL report says, “steadily declining profitability will slowly consume school budgets at the rate of a few million dollars a year in the near term.”

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