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Nebraska National Forest - One man's vision
May 05, 2011 M. Timothy Nolting   

Read more by M. Timothy Nolting

Tim Nolting Contributing Columnist

Kansas folk-history recorded the story of an early pioneer family whose wagon lost a wheel, when several spokes broke, while traveling the Santa Fe Trail. With no spare wheel and the closest wheelwright being several hundred miles away, the resourceful sojourner remembered seeing a lone tree only two days ride on the back trail. Unhitching one of the horses from the wagon team, he rode back to the tree, cut it down, trimmed the trunk, hauled it back to the wagon and lashing it to the wagon’s running gears, devised a sort of ‘skid’ to replace the broken wheel.

Whether this story is true or not, it accurately illustrates the scarcity of trees on the western Kansas plains. However, had that pioneer family been traveling the Oregon Trail through Nebraska Territory, I believe they would have had to simply abandon their wagon. No doubt, you’ve heard the line about the Nebraska state tree being a telephone pole.

I had not heard about tree claims until I began to research Nebraska history. As I understand it, homesteaders could file a tree claim that would require them to plant a specified number of trees on the land claimed in order to ‘prove it up’ and obtain ownership. This was especially true in the Sandhills and panhandle where the scarcity of trees was a major drawback for successful homesteading.

On the treeless plains of Kansas, homesteaders built fences using quarried slabs of sandstone for fence posts. However, not only were the plains of Nebraska treeless, they were also mostly sand-based soil with no natural material available for fence posts. Such harsh realities were the basis for one man’s vision that would eventually become one of Nebraska’s National Forests.

Charles E. Bessey was the Professor of Botany at the University of Nebraska from 1884 until his death in 1915. A native of Ohio, Professor Bessey came to the University of Nebraska when it was only 15 years old and had a student body totaling a mere 373 students. Professor Bessey believed that his botany students should conduct research in the field as well as the classroom and immediately had them covering the state gathering data on the native plants of Nebraska. It was Professor Bessey who convinced the University Board of Regents to establish an agricultural experiment station that would distribute the results of university research to the citizens of the state.

In 1890 Professor Bessey proposed that the federal government should plant trees in the Nebraska Sandhills. Some say that this proposal was based on indications that the sand hills once contained vast forests and would therefore be capable of sustaining them again. In fact some Native American legends told of great forests stretching across the rolling hills where only sparse grass and barren blowouts now lay. Others say the plan was for a transcontinental windbreak running north to south, from the Canadian border to the gulf, in order to slow the prairie winds that screamed across the plains.

As appealing as either of these notions might be, the more practical purpose was actually an experiment, that Professor Bessey proposed, to establish a tree plantation that could provide material for fuel, fence posts, rail ties and even lumber as building material for homesteaders as well as ground cover to prevent erosion and a natural habitat for wildlife.

At Bessey’s urging, in 1891, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry established an experimental plantation of pine trees on the Bruner Brothers' ranch in Holt County, NE. The success of this plantation led to the establishment of a forest reserve on the Dismal River by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt in April 1902. In 1908 the reserve became the Nebraska National Forest. Later, the 90,000-acres between the Dismal River and the Loup River, near Halsey, NE was named the Bessey District in honor of its primary advocate. The 20,000 acres of trees on this reserve is the largest hand planted forest in the world.
The first seeds, taken from the forests of the Pine Ridge in the northwestern panhandle were planted in seedbeds on the north bank of the Loup River. In May of 1906 the first seedlings were transplanted across the rolling sand hills. Historical photographs show narrow ‘V’ shaped furrows stretching to the horizon. Furrows were cut with a crew of 3 men and a team of 5 horses. A crew of 5 men would plant an average of 6,000 seedlings a day that were delivered to them by buckboard or packhorse. The early success rate of those plantings was less than 10 percent. However, by 1911, improved methods increased that yield to nearly 90 percent and mechanization increased daily plantings to well over 20,000 trees per day.

This past weekend, my wife Deb and I visited this man-made forest. The pine and cedar covered hills are breathtaking and it is nearly impossible to comprehend the huge undertaking involved in converting this piece of prairie to a forest. It is truly a marvel and a place of beauty. Professor Bessey’s vision became, in part, a most remarkable reality, an inspiration to other visionaries who dare to dream big.

Even though this ‘man-made’ forest never provided the timber harvesting aspects that Professor Bessey envisioned, it has been successful in reducing erosion, providing wildlife habitant and enabling various recreational activities including camping, hiking and hunting. It is a source of fuel from designated cutting areas and has provided a limited supply of building materials, primarily fence posts. Although seedlings are still planted, to replenish wildlife habitat, the Bessey District is in fact a natural prairie. Other than red cedar, almost a nuisance tree that can quickly overrun prime pastureland, there is no natural woody revegitation as trees eventually give way to grass. It is believed that over time the primary composition of the hand planted forest will be dominated by eastern red cedar.

Perhaps five-hundred or a thousand years from now, someone will find evidence of a large forested area on rolling, grass covered sand hills between two continuously flowing prairie rivers. Local legend may tell of vast expanses of Jack pine, Spruce and Cedar that once covered the hills of sparse grass and barren blowouts. They may decide that where forests once thrived, surely they can thrive again and extensive efforts will be undertaken to hand-plant thousands of acres of trees.

Maybe the real lesson here is that in the long run, man has very little, if any, true impact on or control of the forces of nature. The sand hills are the sand hills, not a prairie forest and in time, nature will reclaim its own.
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