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Oklahoma's Lost Forest

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.