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Milestones in Nebraska’s tree-planting history

Nebraskans have a long-standing tradition and heritage in planting trees.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

April 28, 2023

5 Min Read
A young Douglas fir being planted
TREE PLANTERS STATE: Foresters, arborists and tree-loving landowners encourage residents to continue the long-standing Nebraska tradition of planting trees on Arbor Day. Bohemian Nomad Picturemakers/Getty Images

Nebraska, once known as the “Tree Planters State,” has a long and storied history in tree planting. And the state has, at times, played a key leadership role in tree-planting and conservation efforts and programs around the country.

On this Arbor Day, we thought it would be interesting to look back on a timeline of big events lending to Nebraska’s tree-planting and rural forestry heritage:

1854. Julius Sterling Morton moved to the Nebraska Territory with his new bride, Caroline Joy French, settling on 160 acres they bought in Nebraska City the following year. Morton, who was born in Adams, N.Y., in 1832, would become instrumental in tree-planting efforts and promotions in Nebraska and across the country during his lifetime.

1865. A large wildfire was deliberately set by the U.S. Army to drive native tribes out of the Platte Valley. The fire was driven by a strong northwest wind and burned an entire section of the state south of the Platte River and west of Fort Kearny.

April 10, 1872. Morton, who was serving on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, proposed a day devoted to planting trees across the state. His proposal, which called for the observance of an Arbor Day, was approved, and the first Arbor Day was held on this date. Nebraskans were said to have planted more than 1 million trees that day.

1873. The Timber Culture Act was passed, giving settlers deed to public lands in return for growing trees that would make life more livable on the Great Plains.

1874. Nebraska’s third governor, Robert W. Furnas, was just as much of a tree planter, orchardist and tree promoter as Morton. Furnas officially proclaimed Arbor Day in Nebraska for the first time in this year.

1885. Arbor Day was named a legal state holiday in Nebraska. April 22 — Morton’s birthday — was selected as the date for the observance at that time.

1890. Charles E. Bessey, University of Nebraska botanist, and Bernhard E. Fernow, chief of the USDA Division of Forestry, began an experiment in growing trees in Nebraska’s Sandhills, selecting a site near Swan Lake in Holt County for their demonstration.

1902. Morton, the founder of the Arbor Day concept, died on April 27. He was not only involved with tree planting, but also was a prominent Nebraska City newspaper editor; was appointed by President James Buchanan as the Secretary of Nebraska Territory from 1858 to 1861; and served as U.S. secretary of agriculture in the cabinet of President Grover Cleveland from 1893 to 1897.

1902. Bessey Nursery, named for Charles Bessey, was established near present day Halsey as part of the Dismal River Forest Reserve.

1907. Arbor Day tree planting became prominent among schoolchildren and schools across the country, thanks to an Arbor Day proclamation to schoolchildren from President Theodore Roosevelt.

1907. The Nebraska National Forest was established, combining three smaller forest preserves — including the Dismal River, Niobrara and North Platte — into a single forest designation.

1920. More than 45 states and U.S. territories are celebrating Arbor Day.

1924. The Clarke-McNary Act of 1924 allowed the purchase of land to enlarge the National Forest System and enabled the U.S. secretary of agriculture to work cooperatively with state officials for better forest protection, and reforestation efforts with private landowners. The law led to millions of “Clarke-McNary” trees being planted in shelterbelts and conservation plantings across Nebraska and the country.

1926. The first Clarke-McNary plantings take place in Nebraska, distributing 33,900 trees to 96 cooperators in 44 counties.

1935. The first Nebraska windbreak planted under the new Prairie States Forestry Project implemented by President Franklin Roosevelt was planted on the John Schleusener farm in Antelope County. Over the course of the project’s life through 1942, Nebraskans led the way — planting almost 4,170 miles of windbreaks on 51,621 acres on 6,944 farms.

1950s. Nebraska’s Pine Ridge was added to the Nebraska National Forest.

1965. A bolt of lightning sparks a wildfire that destroys 30,000 acres of the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey.

1970. President Richard Nixon recognized Arbor Day nationwide, although it is celebrated at different dates today in different states because of unique climate conditions in various parts of the country. In Nebraska, it is celebrated the last Friday of April.

1971. The Niobrara Division of the Nebraska National Forest, located in Cherry County west of Valentine near Nenzel, was designated the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, honoring the former Nebraska governor, rancher and publisher of Nebraska Farmer magazine.

1972. Nebraska’s unique system of Natural Resources Districts is established.

1972. The National Arbor Day Foundation is founded to celebrate the centennial of the first Arbor Day observance. The headquarters, fittingly, is established in Nebraska City.

1976. Arbor Lodge in Nebraska City, Morton’s former home, is designated as the first accredited arboretum in the state.

1976. The National Arbor Day Foundation establishes its popular Tree City USA designation. Today, 3,652 communities are a part of the program, responsible for the planting of nearly 1 million trees.

1978. The Nebraska Statewide Arboretum is founded as a public-private partnership between UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the Statewide Arboretum, to create arboretums across the state to demonstrate a variety of tree species plantings.

1989. A wildfire known as the Fort Robinson Fire was sparked by lightning, burning about 48,000 acres in Nebraska’s Pine Ridge — including thousands of acres of native Ponderosa pine.

2012. One of the worst wildfire seasons on record in the state burned nearly 500,000 acres, particularly in the Pine Ridge, in northwest portions of the state, along with the Niobrara River Valley to the east. More than 65 structures were burned, and the cost of controlling the fires was in excess of $12 million.

2014. For the 25th and final season, hundreds of Boy Scouts planted trees at Fort Robinson State Park to help reforest the regions of the park destroyed by the 1989 wildfires. In this last planting, 1,100 scouts from five states planted more than 10,000 tree seedlings. Over the 25 years of planting, scouts planted nearly 450,000 trees.

2022. Multiple wildfires destroy thousands of acres of grasslands, first in the early spring, and then again in late summer, thanks to severe drought conditions across most of the state. One of these fires, Bovee, burned thousands of acres of the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey, including the beloved State 4-H Camp. Bessey Nursery, however, was saved.

2023. About 1 million conservation trees are distributed to Nebraska landowners each year through the state’s 23 NRDs.

Learn more at nfs.unl.edu.

About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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