TREE TIME: Richard Gilbert, manager of the Charles E. Bessey Nursery, holds one of the hundreds of thousands of container tree seedlings produced at the USDA Forest Service facility that is the oldest continually operating tree nursery in the country. Located off Highway 2 near Halsey and the Bessey Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forest, Bessey nursery produces about 1.5 million bare-root tree seedings and nearly another million container trees for distribution to rural landowners across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, and for reforestation efforts in the national forests. The nursery also is a tree seed storage facility for the Rocky Mountain Region 2.
RANGER DISTRICT: The Bessey nursery is located within the USDA Forest Service Bessey Ranger District at Halsey as a portion of the Nebraska National Forest. In 1902, UNL botanist Charles Bessey convinced President Teddy Roosevelt to set aside 200,000 acres of Sandhills prairie as an experimental man-made forest called the Dismal River Forest Reserve. The nursery was established that same year as a critical component to producing tree seedlings that were needed for this colossal conservation tree planting effort.
TREE FIELDS: On 80 acres, the Bessey Tree Nursery was established along the Middle Loup River near the new forest. Today, about 46 irrigated acres of the nursery grounds are dedicated to raising bare-root tree seedlings. The sandy soil, combined with ample water supplies, make this the perfect setting for a tree nursery. In the foreground, you can see the bare-root tree seedling fields, and in the background, you can see the large, covered container tree greenhouses.
CONTAINERS: On a tour given to Nebraska Farmer a few years ago, nursery manager Richard Gilbert explained the growth of the container-raised trees, as part of the role Bessey nursery plays in reforestation efforts and in distributing conservation trees across a wide region. In this photo, he holds one of the flats used in raising the container trees.
IN THE COOLER: Gilbert holds a bag of tree seed. One of the most crucial roles played by Bessey nursery is the storage of about 14,000 pounds of location-identified tree seed extracted and stored at low temperatures to provide an important seed bank to springboard reforestation efforts in the case of natural disasters such as wildfires and insect infestations. Seed is collected from specific areas and elevations, so that tree seedlings can be raised from seed collected in that area and returned to be planted in those same locations to provide the best opportunity for success. Inside the cooler are rows of seed boxes, some of which date back to 1963.
FLUFFY SEED: While much of the production work at Bessey nursery has to do with conifers, they also collect and store broadleaf trees and shrubs. Gilbert exhibits a bag of cottonwood seed that has been collected locally. He noted in the tour that it takes a lot of work to collect a full bag of this light, fluffy tree seed.
PACKING HOUSE: In the packing area, tree seedlings are processed each spring by employees at the nursery. With about six full-time employees, at the peak distribution season, the nursery hires another four to eight seasonal staff members and as many as 50 employees that help with tree seedling fieldwork and processing.
BIG GREEN: Under these massive greenhouses, Bessey nursery raises nearly 1 million container tree seedlings each year for reforestation and conservation tree planting efforts across the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states.
IN THE CONTAINER: Much of the production from the trees produced in the greenhouses goes to regenerate areas devastated by wildfires or insect devastation, such as the Black Hills National Forest.
PLENTIFUL WATER: The location of the Bessey nursery was selected because of its sandy soil and available water supplies. Today, about 46 acres of irrigated fields are available for growing bare-root tree seedlings.
OTHER PLANTS: In total, the nursery produces about 60 different species of trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses in the fields and in their greenhouses. They raise four main timber species, but also produce oaks, maples, sumac, buffalo berry, eastern red cedar, juniper and countless other species.
SCOTT: Charles A. Scott was the first nursery manager at Bessey. Although the first year of tree plantings was discouraging, the nursery continued operations and increased in importance over the years. Today, it is the oldest continually operating tree nursery in the country.
THE TOWER: Scott Lookout Tower was built in 1944, honoring the first nursery manager, Charles A. Scott. The tower was renovated in 2009 and was reopened to the public in 2012, offering a far-reaching view of the Bessey District of the Nebraska National Forest. It remains the only fire lookout tower in the state, and it is used to observe wildfire conditions in the forest.
Photos by Curt Arens
LONG VIEW: The view from the Scott Tower gives visitors a look at the Sandhills terrain for miles and miles, including Charles Bessey’s grand experimental forest that has become the Nebraska National Forest and remains the largest man-made forest in the country. The trees used to plant this man-made phenomenon in the middle of the Sandhills were produced at the Bessey nursery nearby.