Tree planting is in the DNA of Nebraskans. In fact, it has taken on more impetus in recent years, particularly in wildfire-damaged areas of the Pine Ridge and Niobrara Valley.
During the extreme drought and heat of 2012, almost 600 square miles of Nebraska forest and grasslands burned in wildfires, with more than 77,000 acres of ponderosa pine stands and rangeland in the Pine Ridge scorched.
The Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District, based in Chadron, Neb., has been one of the leaders in statewide conservation tree planting efforts.
"In the past, with the support of the USDA Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and other programs, it was not uncommon for the UNWNRD to sell and plant 500,000 to 700,000 trees in a year," says Pat O'Brien, UNWNRD general manager. "Over the past four or five years, UNWNRD has planted about 100,000 to 150,000 trees per year, with 2020 down a bit from that."
Ponderosa pine seedlings, aimed at landowner reforestation efforts in the Pine Ridge, make up only a portion of the trees that are distributed from UNWNRD. Some of their most popular species include Rocky Mountain juniper, eastern red cedar, American plum, chokecherry, hackberry and honey locust, which all have a proven track record in northwest Nebraska.
"We started taking tree orders on Oct. 15 and will continue until the inventory runs out, which is usually about June 1," O'Brien says. "The trees are received about the second week of April and start going out the door almost immediately."
A large portion of these trees will be planted to establish or rehabilitate windbreaks. "Planting can be completed by our contractor or by the landowner, using NRD equipment that is available for rent," O'Brien explains. "We also have several landowners who will hand-plant."
UNWNRD is not unique in these efforts. All 23 NRDs across the state participate in this tree planting program, carrying on a long legacy of tree planting in the state.
"Order forms can be found online or by stopping by the office," O'Brien says. "The early bird gets the worm, so we encourage folks to order early if they have a preference, because the supplies of some varieties are limited."
UNWNRD is unique in the fact that it takes walk-in tree orders as well, and it keeps an inventory of about 10,000 trees on hand just for this purpose.
"A lot of tree sales are based on cost-share programs," O'Brien says. "Recently, there has been a push for shrubs, due to their beneficial nature for pollinators."
As for reforestation of the pines, UNWNRD and the Middle Niobrara NRD have teamed up with the Nebraska Forest Service and a private contractor to collectively plant 50,000 to 60,000 trees a year in the Pine Ridge and Niobrara Valley, especially in the wildfire areas.
O'Brien says that these planting efforts are impressive, with a hand-plant contractor using 10 people to plant up to 12,000 trees in the hills in a single day. Working with the U.S. Forest Service Bessey Nursery at Halsey, Neb., the trees being planted in this way are potted trees that are grown in a very small pot and still have a plug of soil around their roots.
This is a change from bare-root trees that have been planted in the past, because survivability seems to be higher with the potted trees.
Learn more about planting conservation trees by contacting your local NRD office, or by emailing O'Brien at email@example.com.