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Cedar a Friend and Foe of the Hill Country

The cedar tree is actually native to the Texas Hill Country.

MARBLE FALLS — I admit I was pretty set in my beliefs about cedar trees, also known as ashe junipers. My range science professor told us how they were the scourge of ranch land and the beautiful Texas Hill Country. My years working on a ranch outside of San Marcos included keeping the chain saw handy and ready to do battle with cedar trees.

Just cut them down, the owner said.

After all, most of what I and others had heard painted the cedar tree as an unwanted, water-sucking, invasive species.

Then, during a recent Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society meeting, longtime range scientist Steve Nelle chopped down those beliefs, including the commonly accepted “fact” that the Texas Hill Country was once a vast grassland.

Land management expert Steve Nelle presents ‘The Great Grassland Myth of the Texas Hill Country’ during a recent meeting of the Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society. He says it’s wrong to assume that Central Texas was once a vast grassland and that the cedar tree is an invasive species. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton

Nelle is no ashe juniper-hugging crazy. He’s a man of the land, and by that, I mean he spent decades with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service and as a private consultant helping ranchers and land managers determine the best practices for their properties. He admitted he doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s constantly learning.

Maybe that’s the best lesson Nelle shared during his hour-long presentation, “The Great Grassland Myth of the Texas Hill Country:”Always be willing to question your beliefs and learn.

“I’m not here to tell you this is all true or change your mind right here,” he told the 60-plus people during the Jan. 4 meeting at the Marble Falls Public Library. “It’s just food for thought, that’s what it’s meant to be. So you can go back and chew on it and think about it.”

Right away, Nelle wants people to know he’s not advising we keep all cedar trees; rather, he wants us to look at our properties, our needs and goals, and determine how best to use cedar trees (or not) as a resource. His strategy stems from his research into the history of the Texas Hill Country, which many believed was an expansive grassland before it was settled by Europeans.

However, when he looked at the historic record (first-hand accounts and journals) of pre-1860 explorers of what is now the Hill Country, Nelle learned the land was anything but a grassland. During his talk, Nelle pointed to journals in which explorers noted forests of oaks and cedars as well as “prairies,” which likely referred to savannahs with a mix grasses and trees.

What this showed, Nelle said, is the ashe juniper, despised by many as an invasive species, is actually native to the Hill Country.

“The Hill Country wasn’t one type or the other. Wasn’t grassland, wasn’t a dense forest, wasn’t a savannah,” he explained. “It was a complex and diverse area. It can’t be summarized in one sentence.”

And neither can the ashe juniper.

“Juniper certainly qualifies as a complex plant,” Nelle said.

He described the ashe juniper as having an intricate relationship with soil, water, livestock, flora and fauna, fire, land values, politics, aesthetics, and social mores. Then, there are the relationships those things have with each other.

“It’s not as simple as Grandfather saying, ‘Cedar is bad, and the only good cedar is a dead cedar.’ It’s more complex than that,” Nelle said.

Throughout his talk, it became clear the cedar tree wasn’t the scourge I had thought it was, but neither is it the answer to all land-use problems. Junipers can encroach on savannah-like areas, but they can also help revitalize over-grazed parcels that have been scraped down to bare rocks.

“What can grow there?” he asked, before answering, “Cedar.

“Cedar is basically exploiting a niche we created,” he added.

Cedar trees can push into over-grazed or rock-exposed areas and help control erosion and bring stability. More than that, as cedar trees grow, they also drop needles and pieces of bark, which form a layer of mulch on the ground, helping shrubs, grasses, and other trees gain footholds.

Sure, cedar trees can choke out the sun, but Nelle said part of a land management plan could include trimming back or thinning out some of their limbs.

“It is essential to recognize the value of ashe juniper as a stabilizing agent in the landscape,” Nelle said.

Plus, organic matter grows and thrives in the mulch below cedar trees. Nelle pointed out that the highest level of organic matter measure in Texas didn’t come from the rich blackland prairies; it came from under a cedar tree in Real County.

Cedar also serves as habitat and food sources for wildlife and even livestock. “In dry winter months, cedar will keep a goat, a sheep, and deer alive,” Nelle said. “It’s not their favorite, but it will keep them alive.”

So does this mean we should all rush out and embrace ashe juniper? No — especially during cedar fever season — and Nelle isn’t saying we should. He’s just asking people to look at ashe juniper as part of a very complex system when it comes to land management. Even if you have only a few acres or are part of a community with shared acreage, there are things you can do to enhance the land. That might mean keeping cedar trees and letting them run their course, managing them, or clearing them.

On one of his slides, Nelle asked the question: “What should we do with cedar?”

He then outlined options:

• get rid of it;

• reduce/thin;

• trim/prune;

• or leave it alone.

“The answer is ‘yes,’” he said to all options. “It’s prudent to use all those things where needed. There’s something else we should do with cedar. We should seek to understand it.

“It has been said that those who do not understand nature are destined to deplete it,” Nelle added. “The correlation to that statement is those who understand nature the best are compelled and motivated to conserve it.”

Even after his presentation, Nelle urged people not to take his word for it but use it as he first said: “food for thought.”

“We’re always in a place to learn more. We should never think we know it all and there’s nothing left to learn,” he said. “I’m not saying you should believe everything I tell you, but go read, look, and study.”

The Highland Lakes Birding and Wildflower Society is planning a field day this spring with Nelle. The organization meets at 9:30 a.m. the first Thursday of the month at the Marble Falls Public Library, 101 Main St. The public is welcome. If you’re interested in learning about the upcoming field day, feel free to attend the next meeting on Thursday, Feb. 1.

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There are 2 comments.

Les Fenter —
RE: Juniper/Cedar benefits in Texas HIll Country. I was privileged to meet David Bamberger, Owner of Selah, 5500 acre ranch just S. of Johnson City. It was 24 years ago that he took us on a tour and showed us running creeks and pools. Before he "removed all the [Cedar/Juniper], there were no creeks nor pools". So as I read Mr. Nelle's article, I think of Mr. Bamberger's story. Guess the historical research by Mr. Nelle, sets the record straight about Juniper/Cedar. Or perhaps it was removal of the mesquites that returned water to the ranch. The endangered Black-Capped Vireo and Golden-Cheeked Warbler might not be around w/o those pollen-puffing, trees.
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Bill Luedecke —
I am both a Master Naturalist and a Master Gardner and this article on Cedar Trees ( Ashe Junipers) was right on. One of the best more accurate. Congratulations ! Thank You !
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