Reforestation program to increase plantings by 500,000

OKLAHOMA CITY – Addressing the success of the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service is one of Jeri Irby’s first priorities as the new head of the state’s reforestation program.

The primary task of the new forest regeneration and tree improvement manager at the state Department of Agriculture is to keep Oklahoma well-treed. That includes maintaining windbreaks created decades ago to mediate the damage of the Dust Bowl, she said. Trees don’t live forever and when they die, farmers need to be reminded to maintain their efforts at the risk of history repeating itself.

Following recent years of severe drought, Irby’s reforestation program at Goldsby is upping its tree nursery population by 500,000 plantings. The nursery typically produces 4 million seedlings per year on just 120 acres. Many of those baby trees are sold at cost to landowners for conservation, wildlife habitat development, and beautification, which helps keep the program afloat with little input from the government.

Trees have a $2.8 billion economic impact on the state, primarily via the lumber industry and conservation savings, according to the department. The annual seedling sales typically total about $1.5 million, a number that falls during drought and picks up again once there’s enough water to fill ponds. Irby is expecting higher demand this year, thus the 12-percent increase in plantings.

Nature has its own agenda, though, and trees take several years to grow to full size. Even now the northwest third of the state is abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The year started with some areas of the state already in extreme drought.

Farmers have gotten so good about managing drought that some of them might be a little too comfortable, said Eunice Padley, Natural Resources Conservation Service national forester.

Consider the no-till trend, for example: Traditional farming methods require a farmer to make several passes over a field with equipment before planting can begin, one of the more expensive costs of the ag industry. More often, tilling disks are being set aside in favor of seed-insertion machinery, leaving the soil undisturbed.

That’s important because it helps keep erosion to a minimum. The worst-case scenario occurred in the 1930s when black clouds of dust swept across the state, the result of over-farming the land. Following the economic catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, the federal government established a soil conservation and education program that later evolved into the NRCS.

Padley said farmers feel so good about no-till that they’re more likely to let their windbreak maintenance lapse when trees die. Also, farmers are investing in bigger machines for bigger operations, and they believe windbreaks are getting in the way of their progress.

Irby said the federal program’s first tree windbreak reported in the state was an Austrian pine in Greer County. If any of the trees from that era are still around, she said, they’ve likely been stressed to a breaking point and need to be replaced as part of the program’s focus.

Irby has served as the education coordinator with Oklahoma Forestry Services at the Department of Agriculture since 2012. She coordinated the environmental education program Project Learning Tree and managed outreach events throughout the state. Irby said she’s looking forward to the opportunity to apply her public-education skills on a wider scale.