Dennis Adams, as head of the UNL rural forestry program, knows trees. And he knows first-hand how devastating the 2012 drought has been for the state’s tree resources.
On his own tree farm near Lincoln, Adams says “the worst drought on record in Nebraska” killed 100% of his newly planted spruce and fir trees and 75% of the newly planted pine. “Root systems on newly planted tree are so shallow that they didn’t find soil moisture. The only salvation is irrigation, but most new plantings aren’t irrigated.”
Now, with no moisture relief in sight for this spring, Adams foresees major problems developing with larger trees. As an example, he observed a windbreak north of Lincoln last fall where 15 to 20 foot white pine were dead.
Conifers, of course, aren’t native to Nebraska, which makes them more vulnerable to drought.
But drought is not the only disaster felling the state’s trees.
Devastating wildfires in 2012 burned nearly 500,000 acres of trees and 65 structures and caused more than $12 million in fire suppression costs statewide. Nebraska’s beautiful Pine Ridge is down to an estimated 100,000 acres of trees, due to wildfires last years and in previous years. When he first came to Nebraska in the early 1970s, Adams says the region had 250,000 acres of trees. “Much of the Pine Ridge forest ecosystem has been lost to repeated catastrophic wildfires,” he adds.
Some of the blame, in his view, goes beyond Mother Nature. He says the lack of forest management, including thinning of debris, brush and downed trees, has created increase forest fuel loads and an explosive potential for large forest fires, not only in the Pine Ridge but statewide. He calls them “megafires” that occur more frequently than in the past, spread and grow quickly upon ignition. They burn such large areas that that even seed trees are lost. Those megafires, as we saw last year, put lives of residents and emergency personnel at great risk.
Fires also swept through parts of Niobrara Valley and other areas, scourging trees, killing rangeland, wiping out fences and costing landowners millions.
Pine wilt is another significant factor in the loss of pine trees.
It’s understandable that drought makes rural and urban residents wary of planting seedlings, and that concern is showing up in the popular Nebraska Conservation Tree Program. The state’s 23 natural resource districts carry out this program, receiving seedlings from the Bessey Nursery near Halsey in the Nebraska Sandhills. At one point in the early 1990s, more than 3 million seedling trees were ordered through the program. In more recent years, around 1 million a year have been ordered. Only about half that number was ordered in 2013.