By Senator Ben Nelson
Did you know that Nebraska is home to the nation’s oldest federal tree nursery? It’s located in the Nebraska National Forest, and yes, Virginia, there is a national forest in Nebraska and it houses an active seedling nursery that is in the National Register of Historic Places.
Some visitors only see our state while driving through on I-80 and think of us only as the nation’s breadbasket with our fertile farm and ranch lands. When they get off the Interstate they’ll see so much more including Nebraska’s 20,000 square miles of sand dunes, which is the largest area of sand dunes in North America, and home to a forest.
Forest in the Sand
It is known as the Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands and is unique because it is the largest hand-planted forest in the U.S. What a remarkable achievement. It is also unusual given that these are pine and cedar trees that are actually growing in the sand.
It is divided into two separate ranger districts; The 90,000 acre Bessey District is located in the Sandhills of central Nebraska near Halsey in Blaine and Thomas Counties, midway between North Platte and Valentine. It comprises about 67% of the total forest area. The second section is the rugged Pine Ridge District in northwest Nebraska near Chadron stretching into South Dakota.
Bessey Nursery Helps After Wildfires
The U.S. Forest Campground Guide says Native American legend tells of a time when the gentle, rolling Sandhills of Nebraska were covered with a pine forest. In the late 1800’s, Dr. Charles Bessey, a Professor of Botany at the University of Nebraska, envisioned the return of such a forest. In 1902, with the blessings of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Nebraska National Forest began as an experiment to prove trees could be grown on treeless tracts of Nebraska's Sandhills.
Today, the Bessey Nursery not only provides visitors insight to this critical component of managing the nation's forests, the USDA says they raise up to 3 million seedling trees that are sent annually to forests, especially after wildfires such as we’ve seen this summer in Colorado and other western states. The Bessey Nursery also keeps a frozen 10 year supply of seeds in case of emergencies.
This year, the forest had its own wildfire when lightning started a blaze that burned about 1,000 acres before it was brought under control.
Vacationing in Nebraska’s National Forest
Besides learning about the historic and unique nature of the Nebraska National Forest, there’s a lot for tourists to do including camping, tubing on the river, volleyball, a full playground, baseball/softball, fishing, hiking and horseback riding.
Our little-known unique treasure of the Nebraska National Forest is just one of the reasons that more and more people are discovering Nebraska and its many tourist attractions including our national forest that provides a valuable natural resource for the entire country carrying on the tree planting tradition of Nebraska; home of Arbor Day.
By Senator Ben Nelson