Oklahoma is the continental crossroads for a variety of forests. The eastern woodland meets the western grassland, mingling with the ponderosa pines of the Rocky Mountains in the far reaches of the Panhandle and the mesquite scrubland of northern Texas. The Ozark hardwoods of oak and hickory finger their way into the pine forests of the Ouachitas and the cypress swamps of Louisiana.
In the center of the state towering trees bow out to the cross-timbers-dense, gnarled patches of drought-resistant post and blackjack oaks. In 1832, Washington Irving called them "forests of cast iron."
Later, cowboys driving herds along the Chisholm and Shawnee trails gave this forest its existing name. The timbers snagged cattle as they attempted to cross.
Although Oklahoma is commonly thought of only as a state with wide-open prairies, wheat fields and ranchland, approximately 10 million acres, about 20% of the land, is presently forested. Of these forested acres, well over six million are commercial forestland, land that is capable of growing wood as a crop. Individuals, farmers, corporate owners and the forest industry privately own over 90% of Oklahoma's forests. The state, counties, municipalities or the federal government publicly owns only six percent.
Currently, a new forest is quickly emerging over the last 70 years. It was not present during the time Irving was here. Scattered across Oklahoma in a three to four million-acre range are redcedar forests, which have popped up in ever increasing numbers after wildfires were largely contained or eliminated. Many ranchers have had their rangelands overwhelmed by what many call an "invasion" of redcedar. This incursion is causing a long-term change in our forestland and rangeland ecosystems that will have serious consequences on wildlife, risk of wild land fire, land productivity and recreation unless dealt with aggressively.
Hardy prairie grasses and periodic wildfires once relegated cedars to the more remote limestone outcrops and protected canyons. Passive land management, over-grazing livestock and suppressing wildfires have transformed much of Oklahoma into the ideal nursery for cedar seedlings.
Redcedar has many commercial uses. Seventeen sawmills have opened across the state to utilize the products these trees provide, which include: cedar oil, litter box chips, lumber for hope chests, and insect repellent. To learn more about red cedar, contact the Oklahoma Red Cedar Association (ORA) at Aromatic Cedar Association.
If you travel from the cross-timbers shaggy arms to follow the streams and low prairie rivers, you will find another type of Oklahoma forest-the bottomland hardwoods. In far southeastern Oklahoma you can walk in the shade of bald cypress and willow oaks. In northeastern areas you'll find pin oaks and cove-type hardwoods.
In central Oklahoma we have elms, pecan and a wide variety of oaks. Out in the western part of the state the number of species in our bottomland hardwood forests declines. The majority of trees are cottonwood, elm and ash.
Oklahoma's bottomland hardwoods have been heavily cut over and cleared for agricultural uses. Because their wood is valuable and easy to transport along waterways, these trees were among the first forests cut in Oklahoma. Man-made lakes have flooded many uncut areas.
By 1956, the U.S. Forest Service estimated that only 15 percent of the state's bottomland hardwoods still stood. Fortunately, the trees in these forests naturally regenerate very well and with minimal management and protection they can be restored to productive conditions. Commercially, the most valuable timber from the bottomlands comes from:
- Black walnut
- Red oaks
- White oaks
- Green ash
Some other forests tapped early in settlement were the central Oklahoma oak forests. These trees provided raw material for western expansion of the railroads, some of the westernmost good quality trees suitable for this purpose.
The majority of Oklahoma forestland is oak-hickory. On the map you can see how it fingers its way into a wide variety of forms and species mixes. Oak-hickory forests provide food, cover and nesting sites for numerous wildlife species.
In northeastern Oklahoma you'll find these trees used for commercial wood products. Further west as the rainfall diminishes the growth rate of these forests is slowed. Hickory becomes less common
Commercially, our most valuable wood is generated from southern oak-pine forests, which are in the far southeastern corner of Oklahoma on more than five million acres extending into five counties. The forest industry and private landowners claim the vast majority of southern oak-pine woods. The federal government owns approximately 300,000 acres of national forests.
Among the Oklahoma industries supported by these forests include:
- Two large sawmills
- A plywood plant A medium density fiberboard plant Two large paper mills
Located in the scenic Ouachita Mountains these forests provide superior recreation opportunities as well as supporting a diverse wildlife population.
Another benefit is the filtering system these woodlands offer to ensure high quality drinking water that is used as far away as Oklahoma City.
Tucked away in the northwestern most corner of the Panhandle Oklahoma has approximately 50-100 thousand acres of pinion pine and juniper forestland. Commonly referred to scrub or brush lands, these savanna-like forests contain several species of western juniper and at least two species of pine. You can find a very small number of Ponderosa pine trees on favorable slopes. Used locally for firewood or fence posts, these trees have no other commercial value.
According to the southern forest resource assessment, in 1630 Oklahoma had 13.3 million acres of forests with 133 tree species. By the 1930s less than 200,000 acres of virgin forest in eastern Oklahoma remained. The U.S. Forest Service estimates we now have 7.665 million acres of forest-58 % of the original acreage. Forest surveys have shown increases in the forest during the past 20 years due to better management and reforestation.
Elbert Little, Jr., who studied several forest sites in southeast Oklahoma over a 60 year period described the burned out and cutover woods he first witnessed in 1929 as "almost worthless for any purpose." It would be some time, he said, before it was of any value.
Despite early excesses, poor land use and lack of foresight, some exciting stories of forest reclamation are also woven into our history. For example, during the first 10 years our agency was in business an intensive public education campaign was launched. As a result, the percentage of southeastern forests burned annually dropped from 80 percent to three percent.
By the 1980s when Little revisited the area, he reversed his earlier position about the worthlessness of the land. He wrote that he wished he owned some of it. "The progress in management of southeastern Oklahoma's forest lands is far greater than anyone would have predicted a half century ago," he wrote. "The changes, mostly beneficial, are beyond anyone's imaginations or dreams."
The state's vast pine and oak-pine forests have recovered well and presently support a huge forest industry, wildlife populations and recreation opportunities.
It is important to remember forests change naturally over time-they won't remain the same unless we manipulate them intentionally. Early French explorers in east central Oklahoma north of Wilburton named the mountains San Bois: treeless. Now they are covered with woodlands.
Large pine trees scattered in tall-grass savannah characterized the virgin forests of southeastern Oklahoma. Quality hardwoods such as walnut and ash were growing in Oklahoma along the west Texas border thousands of years ago. Very large red cedars have been unearthed near Chickasha that are estimated to also be several thousand years old.
Grasslands and the woodlands are in a constant tug of war as they respond to long-term climate changes. Humanity is only one part of a very large equation.