Nebraska is a diverse agricultural state, with a broad and interesting farming and ranching history, from east to west. Some of the state’s finest ag history museums and educational sites help to tell the story of Nebraska agriculture through time.
In this installment in our series of Nebraska Farmer virtual tours, we encourage teachers, ag students, 4-H and FFA members, farmers and ranchers, and ag history enthusiasts to walk the grounds of the USDA Forest Service Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery at the Nebraska National Forest in the Sandhills near Halsey. It is the oldest operating tree seedling nursery in the country.
Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery
Charles E. Bessey, a renowned University of Nebraska botanist, knew all about conservation-minded President Teddy Roosevelt. In 1902, Bessey convinced Roosevelt that a hand-planted forest on the prairie in the Sandhills of Nebraska would provide a needed timber reserve for a growing industrial nation, and it would allow scientists to conduct experimental tree plantings.
Bessey thought that a man-made forest could potentially influence the local climate of the Sandhills in a positive way. The whole idea was environmental engineering on a grand scale, and Roosevelt loved it.
Roosevelt designated the Dismal River Forest Reserve on 200,000 acres of treeless Sandhills prairie, and he allowed for the establishment of a new tree nursery on 80 acres of flat floodplain along the Middle Loup River. The sandy soils and plentiful water supply provided the perfect setting for growing tree seedlings that could be used to grow this giant man-made forest on the prairie.
By that fall, tree seed collection took place in the Pine Ridge of Nebraska and the Black Hills. The first seed was sown at the nursery site in November, and by the following spring, tens of thousands of new seedlings were planted — including jack pine, yellow pine, red cedar and blue spruce.
Charles A. Scott, the first Nebraska National Forest supervisor at the site, reported that early results were discouraging, but that didn’t deter the efforts. Over the years, with the passage of the Kinkaid Act of 1904 and the Clarke-McNary Act of 1924, on through the conservation and windbreak development programs of the 1930s, the key role of Bessey nursery increased as it provided trees for planting across the Plains states.
Around the nursery, the largest man-made forest in the country was planted. This Halsey portion of the Nebraska National Forest is managed by the Bessey Ranger District, and includes Bessey nursery, the historic Scott Lookout Tower and a recreation area surrounding the forest ranger district headquarters.
Today, Bessey nursery manager Richard Gilbert understands the legacy he is carrying on at this historic place. “The nursery has been producing plants since 1902 to help protect our national resources, cropland, livestock, wildlife, and ranch and farm homes,” Gilbert said in a 2014 Nebraska Farmer interview. “It is an honor to carry on the tradition and vision of Charles E. Bessey.”
The nursery produces seedlings for the Nebraska Conservation Tree Program for distribution to rural landowners across the state, as well as in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas.
Seedlings also are produced for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Reservations in South Dakota and Wyoming, along with providing seed bank storage and seedlings for reforestation efforts across the Rocky Mountain Region 2.
Bessey nursery is capable of producing 4.5 million bare-root conifer and hardwood seedlings each year on 46 irrigated acres of seedbeds. On average, the nursery actually produces about 1.5 million seedlings, along with hundreds of thousands of container tree seedlings under gigantic controlled greenhouses.
Bessey also extracts, cleans and stores seed obtained from cones and berries from around the region. The facility stores about 14,000 pounds of tree seed to protect against national disasters, including wildfires and insect devastation.
Learn more about Bessey Tree Nursery by calling Gilbert at 308-533-2257.