Two weeks ago I was riding with University of Nebraska Extension educator, Scott Cotton, headed up Deadhorse Road southwest of Chadron. Scott took me into the heart of what was the West Ash Fire late last summer, and he described the tumultuous days of the wildfires in that region and how ranchers, emergency personnel and firefighters coped with extreme challenges.
It wasn’t a pretty picture, and the most disheartening for many long time Pine Ridge ranchers is that their beautiful landscape is changed forever with the loss of so many stately pines. Tall black matchsticks are the only remnants of the pines that once graced the tops of many ridges, and that probably won’t change for some time.
On a more positive note, the next day on the same Panhandle trip, I visited with Don Jespersen at Hemingford, whose family, along with the family of his brother Ron, have planted over one million trees over the past decade or so, establishing tree belts across their cropland to catch snow and slow wind erosion. The Jespersens had changed the landscape on their farms, and improved the diversity of wildlife and habitat as a result.
There are those who would consider themselves prairie purists. They believe that the era of tall grass and short grass prairie in Nebraska that explorers like Zebulon Pike and Lewis and Clark saw when they first visited the region is the natural state of our state. They think that we shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature’s design during that period by planting trees on the prairie.
However, I would argue that we began messing with the prairie when humans began roaming the region. The Earth is always in a state of flux, and change is the norm, not the exception. Mike Voorhies, the now-famous Nebraska paleontologist who discovered Ashfall Fossil Beds near Royal, writes that trees have been a part of Nebraska’s landscape for a long time. At the site where a gigantic volcano buried rhinos and other ancient animals near a watering hole at Ashfall ten million years ago, grass and tree seeds have been found. So, obviously trees were a part of the landscape even then.
I love grassland and grazing land as much as anyone, but it is my firm belief that it is OK to plant trees on the prairie, to protect our livestock, slow erosion, hold precious topsoil in place and to protect our homes, as well as providing food for humans and wildlife. I guess holding such an opinion would make me a tree hugger or sorts, although I might not classify myself in that category.
That’s also why, for me, it is heartening to see folks like the Jespersens planting so many trees, and why it is so sad to see the burned remnants of so many sections of the beautiful Pine Ridge. As we know, our planet is always changing, always moving, and we have to remember that we are just along for the ride.
So, here is this week’s discussion question. Would you classify yourself as a tree hugger or prairie purist, or somewhere in between? Let us know about your thoughts.
You can read more about the wildfire aftermath at the Pine Ridge and the Jespersen tree planting in one of our summer print issues of Nebraska Farmer. Check out Nebraska Farmer online for the latest news on the growing and grazing season. You can read my new print column - Bow Creek Chronicles - in Nebraska Farmer, or follow Husker Home Place on Twitter. And watch this blog the last Friday of every month for my “Field Editor’s Report” featuring the positive stories about the families who raise our food. Pass it on!