When I was a kid, five or six neighborhood families would pile into pickups and trucks around Christmas time and drive over hill and dale in grazing land along the Missouri River, searching for the perfect red cedar Christmas tree.
In the days before plastic trees were so popular and before we operated our own choose and cut Christmas tree farm, red cedar trees were plentiful and made fine Christmas trees. They were always very brown when we cut them from the pasture, but after a few days in water, they greened up surprisingly well, and their aroma made the house smell like the holidays.
I can even recall one Christmas when the snow was so deep that Dad and I cut a tree from a pasture fenceline not far from home. Mom didn’t care for the shape of the tree, so Dad finally walked over several snowdrifts and cut the top out of a red cedar growing in our farmstead shelterbelt.
The owner of the pasture where neighborhood families liked to cut cedar Christmas trees had only one condition in allowing us access to his grazing land and growing forest. We had to cut three more trees for every perfectly shaped Christmas tree that we chopped. Back then, some 35 years ago, red cedar trees were already becoming a serious problem as they swallowed up grazing land.
Today, the problem has been compounded many times over. Nebraska Forest Service forester for the Northeast District, Steve Rasmussen, tells us that red cedar is the fastest growing forest resource in the state. While our Christmas tree cutting excursions may have thinned a few dozen trees from one pasture, it hardly solved any cedar problems for the landowner.
Steve has spent the last several years working with other foresters, landowners and farmers and ranchers researching ways to utilize this cedar resource. Over the years that I have been a journalist, I’ve written about farmers who have made cedar furniture and cabinets, beautiful cedar homes and woodcrafts. I’ve written about post peelers that peeled away the outer bark of cedar logs to make clean posts for decoration or for fencing. Woodworkers in my own community even handcrafted a spectacular casket from red cedar not long ago.
In all of these projects, I’ve learned that cedar can be a valuable, beautiful wood resource if it’s in the hands of craftsmen who know how to make use of it. At a recent cedar logging demonstration day near Santee, I was able to witness a logging operation that cut old stand cedars, removed the limbs and cut the trunks into chunks eight feet in length. These are then shipped to a processor in Clarks where they will be shaved into premium pet bedding.
Foresters, landowners, craftsmen and manufacturers working together will most likely find a way to best utilize our cedar forests, so those pesky cedars aren’t such a nuisance, but can actually produce some value outside of a windbreak. Now, if only we could entice folks away from those plastic trees and get a few Christmas tree cutting crews going again.
Watch this spring in our print issues of Nebraska Farmer for more on utilizing our red cedar forests.