LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers are looking for new ways to fight a fast-spreading tree species that crowds out other plants, destroys valuable ranchland and threatens the Great Plains from Texas to the Dakotas.

Eastern red cedar trees are native to the Plains but have spread out of control without the natural prairie fires that kept them in check centuries ago. The trees suck up sunlight and groundwater at the expense of other native plants and turn grasslands into barren patches of dirt.

The issue has caught the attention of state lawmakers, who will convene a hearing Friday at the Capitol to brainstorm ways to keep the problem from worsening.

"Once they get established, they just spread and choke out everything," said Sen. Dan Hughes, of Venango, who is conducting a legislative study to see what the state can do. "It can cut your available rangeland by 60 to 70 percent, but you're still paying property taxes on those acres. It has a pretty significant economic impact."

Hughes said the trees can take root even on well-managed land if neighbors aren't controlling them on their property. He said he doesn't yet know whether he'll introduce a bill in next year's session but will consider suggestions he receives at the hearing. Senators may also review what other states have done, Hughes said.

Eastern red cedar trees traditionally survived on steep, north-facing slopes in canyons where prairie fires couldn't reach. Then settlers started using them as windbreaks and doused the natural wildfires that kept them from spreading too quickly.

Conservationists have dubbed it "the green glacier" that started in Texas and Oklahoma and swept north into Kansas, Nebraska, western Iowa and the Dakotas. At one point in Nebraska, the trees expanded at a pace of nearly 40,000 acres a year — an area roughly half the size of Omaha.

They also produce highly flammable needles and resin, which were partly to blame for massive wildfires that burned city-sized swaths of land in Nebraska in 2012.

The trees are a major concern to ranchers who rely on the state's sprawling, open grasslands to feed their cattle. In rural, eastern Nebraska, some advocates say the trees could lower property values, which over time would erode the tax base needed to finance K-12 public schools.

"We're sort of on the cusp right now," said Jessica Herrmann, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Cattlemen. "If we can get on a handle of the management side of this, we won't have a larger problem down the road."

Herrmann said legislation could include tapping into existing state money to pay for more controlled burns to keep the eastern red cedar population under control. Her group also hopes to raise awareness of the pitfalls of the tree. Many farmers and ranchers still plant them for use as windbreaks.

Landowners also have to worry about the trees re-growing in areas where they were removed, said Scott Stout, a rancher in Curtis, Nebraska, and president of the Nebraska Prescribed Fire Council. The group works with local landowners on controlled fires to clear the trees and restore nutrients to the soil.

"From a landowner's perspective, the economic value (of the trees) is absolutely zero," Stout said. "It's tough to make a living off of ground that the cedars have encroached."

Other groups have voiced concerns about the trees as well, including the Nebraska Forest Service, which has warned that eastern red cedars are creeping into the Sandhills, a region of rolling, grass-covered sand dunes and open prairie.

Stout said some parts of the state have been more proactive than others in fighting the trees. In the past, he said, some state and federal agencies provided incentives for landowners to plant more eastern red cedars as windbreaks, while other programs offered aid to cover the cost of destroying them. Some agencies may still have incentives to promote the trees, he said.

"It really doesn't make sense," Stout said. "Ultimately, everyone needs to work together and have the same outlook, instead of having their own agendas."

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