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City official: New mower improves wildlife habitat, saves water

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, March 31, 2014, at 9:35 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 8:07 a.m.

Photos

Cedar trees in Wichita parks, beware. There’s a mechanical beast coming your way that in seconds can chew you into tiny pieces and spit you out.

And as it eats its way through Wichita, the city’s new forestry mower is creating healthier prairies in city parks, greatly improving wildlife habitat, making it safer to drive and live near parks, and preserving thousands of gallons of water.

It’s saving taxpayers thousands of dollars, too.

“We’ve already paid for this thing multiple times since November,” Parks and Recreation Department maintenance supervisor Warren McCoskey said as he watched the mower turn tall cedars into scattered mulch at Pawnee Prairie Park. “We used to need a 20-man crew to shear, cut, load and haul cedars. Now we can do the same thing with one guy operating the machine and other watching for public safety.”

A natural pest

Eastern red cedars are native to Kansas, but historically they mostly clung to life in rocky areas where native grasses struggled to grow. That’s because where there was lush grass came occasional fires started by lightning or people. Unlike prairie grasses, which thrive after fire, small cedars are killed and consumed by burning grasses. With civilization came a suppression of fire. Cedars have been working to take over Kansas ever since.

Fast growing, drought resistant and prolific, cedar trees have been a land-use problem for decades. In ranch lands they shade out lush grasses needed by cattle and wildlife, and they often are managed with controlled burns.

In towns, cedars can be hazardous, especially where a lack of fire has allowed them to grow too tall and dense to be burned. McCoskey is hoping the city’s new super-size mower can take out such cedars; then, fire will be used to control coming generations of the evergreens.

At the western edge of the park, McCoskey showed where cedars were being removed within a few yards of neighboring streets and houses. He said that in a grass fire, even live cedar trees can burst into flames, sending sparks and firebrands into the air.

“That’s why we have to get the trees out: to create a fire break and keep things from easily jumping to something like a wooden fence, a wood pile or, heaven forbid, a cedar shake roof,” McCoskey said. “Fires are going to happen, either started by nature, vandalism or just an accident. Getting rid of cedars greatly reduces the fuel load we’ll have to work with.”

Jim Mason, a Great Plains Nature Center naturalist, said cedars don’t offer much for wildlife except for places to hide. Too often what’s hiding in the dense thickets can endanger passing motorists.

McCoskey said deer in cedars at the edges of parks have darted into nearby streets and been hit by passing motorists. Ideally, lush prairie grasses will grow where the roadside cedars once grew, giving deer enough forage to stay within a park. Motorists will have a better chance of seeing any deer approaching the road if the trees are gone.

McCoskey said he also is concerned with what’s going on below the cedar.

“I’ve read that the average mature cedar tree uses something like up to 50 gallons of water per day, and we can easily have 150 to 200 of those trees per acre in some of our parks,” McCoskey said. “Think of all the water we’re saving out here.” The savings benefits many.

“It’s been documented many times that when you get cedars off the ground, things like streams and springs that had been dry may start flowing again,” said Mason. “Water is a very precious thing to us, and to wildlife.”

A mechanical solution

The city’s new forestry mower, first used in November and kept busy through the winter, is easier on the planet and on tax dollars, too.

Because of an agreement with a manufacturer, McCoskey wouldn’t give the exact price of the machine but said, “If you or I walked in and bought one it would be $120,000 to $150,000. Wichita got it for a lot less than that, and it’s easily paying for itself.”

In the past, it took a machine to shear a tree at ground level, then the cedars had to be dismembered by chain saws and loaded onto eight large trucks to be hauled off. Now, one person inside the mower can guide an arm about 18 feet up into a cedar, then lower the 24 swirling, tungsten blades that send shredded chunks of cedar flying.

McCoskey said the mower can eat about an acre of dense cedars per day, about what the 20-man crews used to do. The city saves hundreds of dollars in fuel per day because only one machine is needed.

The mowers help the environment in other ways, such as reducing emissions.

“The forestry mower maybe uses about as much fuel in a day as just one of those big trucks,” McCoskey said. “Rather than taking up space in landfills, we’re leaving the residue on the site. We’re leaving all those nutrients that used to be wasted right here on the ground where they can break down the way they’re supposed to.”

A few hundred yards from where the mower was shredding trees, McCoskey walked in an area where a contractor had mowed about a year before. Four kinds of prairie grasses were growing from most patches of open soil amid the mulch. McCoskey said the plants came up on their own, without the need for expensive seed. “We’ll wait a year and see what comes up and take out any noxious weeds,” he said, “but it looks like most of it is going to be good prairie grass and forbs.”

Once the big cedars are gone, and the prairie grasses are back, the Wichita workers will go back to using nature’s original tool for controlling upcoming crops of finger-size cedar saplings: fire.

Mason, who spent much of the past few weeks burning prairie grass patches, said the process is a win-win for humans and wildlife in town. All the small cedars are killed, and the grass will come back within a few days.

“When the cedars get wall to wall, they shade out all other plants and create a dead zone that’s not good for animals or plants,” Mason said. “We don’t burn a whole park at once, and try to burn in patches so things like rabbits and birds have some escape cover. But where we have burned, it should come back in with better grass and forbs, which will be even better for wildlife.”

Reach Michael Pearce at 316-268-6382 or mpearce@wichitaeagle.com.

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