Tree Planting & Forestation in Nebraska: A Continuing Success


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By John Ragsdale

2012 marks the 140th anniversary of the creation of Arbor Day.

Established by J. Sterling Morton—one-time and well-known Nebraska journalist and secretary of agriculture in President Grover Cleveland’s administration—with the goal of encouraging the planting and conservation of trees, Arbor Day enjoyed immediate success. Over one million seedlings were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day, April 1, 1872.

Today Arbor Day is celebrated in all 50 states and several foreign countries. Nebraska celebrated it the last Friday in April.

That Arbor Day had its origin in Nebraska may be a surprise to many. Nebraska is, after all, a Plains state known for cattle, corn and the Cornhusker football team. Less well known is that Nebraska enjoys a long and significant history of tree planting and forestation.

Early Nebraska settlers planted millions of trees for use as fuel, fence posts and to serve as erosion-preventing windbreaks. In 1895 the Nebraska Legislature, in an act based on both fact and faith, designated Nebraska as “The Tree Planters State.” Fortunately, Nebraska’s efforts to develop timber resources were not limited to mere slogans or relying on tree planting by settlers. Early legislative actions created incentives to encourage the planting of trees. One such example was providing a five-year tax exemption in return for tree planting. Another enactment financially rewarded the creation of windbreaks from trees. But the most important efforts were those of individuals.

Charles E. Bessey, University of Nebraska botany professor from 1845 until his death in 1915, made the most notable individual initiative. His initiative took the form of a campaign to have the federal government plant trees in the area of the state now known as the “Sandhills.”

Professor Bessey’s selection of the Sandhills as the recommended location for tree planting may seem surprising. The Sandhills, which cover nearly one–fourth of the state, are grass covered ancient sand dunes, containing little organic matter and generally incapable of producing traditional agricultural crops.

Bessey, however, had the benefit of seeing pine forests successfully grown in similar soil in Michigan, where he taught before coming to Nebraska. He also believed, based on research and study, that what is now north-central Nebraska was forested before the ice age and likely realized that moisture was often present just below the grassy surface of the sandy soil.

His persistence led to experimental plantings in north-central Nebraska from 1891 to 1893. A 1901 federal survey of the experimental planting site revealed the plantings to be a success.

The survey’s results led Gifford Pinchot (the first chief of the United States Forest Service), along with Bessey and others, to recommend that President Theodore Roosevelt designate two “forest reserves” in the Nebraska Sandhills. President Roosevelt accepted the recommendations and by executive order on April 16, 1902, established the two Sandhills forest reserves. Those two reserves ultimately became the “Nebraska National Forest.” (This article’s use of the term “Nebraska National Forest” refers to the Nebraska National Forest and the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest that— together with the Buffalo Gap, Fort Pierre and Oglala National Grasslands— comprise the “Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands,” as so named by the United States Forest Service.)

However, in 1902, Nebraska’s newly designated forest reserves suffered from one major deficiency: they contained few trees.

Work to create the Nebraska National Forest began almost immediately with the establishment—within the reserves—of the Forest Service’s first nursery for the purpose of providing seedlings for the planting of a man-made forest. The nursery, later named for Professor Bessey, was the first to engage in the large-scale production of tree seedlings, with the first successful seedling planting taking place in 1905. Ponderosa pine seedlings were the primary species planted, followed in order by eastern red cedar, jack pine and Scotch pine.

The nursery continues in operation today, making it the oldest federal tree nursery in the nation. Seedlings grown at the nursery are now distributed to other national forests and state and tribal agencies throughout the Great Plains and the West. In 2011 the nursery also sold just over one million seedlings, with many used for erosion-control windbreaks and habitat plantings. (Using trees as windbreaks is a key method of erosion control to protect land from another 1930s-type dust bowl.) Although the 2011 number is above the 2010 total of 780,000, it is well below the 3.47 million sold in 1981 and reflects the continuing trend of farmers to put every available acre into crop production to capitalize on higher commodity prices.

The work of the nursery has resulted in a hand-planted Nebraska National Forest measuring approximately 28,000 acres encompassing almost 40 square miles. Though only a small fraction of the Sept. 30, 2011 total national forest acreage of 188,240,056, the Nebraska National Forest is unique among the country’s 155 national forests.

The Nebraska National Forest is distinguished by the existence of “strip pastures”—mile-wide strips within its boundaries that do not contain trees. These lanes were left unplanted to lessen the danger of fires arising from the Nebraska National Forest’s location inside easily ignitable grasslands. The strip pastures provide a collateral benefit of producing income from ranchers grazing cattle on them. That grazing is closely monitored to be certain the grazing does not leave the grass short enough to create wind-driven “blowouts” on the soil’s surface, exposing the underlying sand to erosion.

The Nebraska National Forest is the only originally hand-planted national forest. While other countries have larger hand-planted forests —China is an example—the Nebraska National Forest is the largest hand-planted forest in North America.

The recent celebration of Arbor Day affords Nebraskans another opportunity to be proud of the uniqueness of the Nebraska National Forest, Nebraska’s now century-old history of tree planting and all the individual and governmental efforts that produced these successes.


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