Mother Nature, Drought And Man Making Assault On Nebraska Trees

Nebraska Notebook

Drought and fire devastate Nebraska forests and cut into new plantings.

Published on: April 1, 2013

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.

Mother Nature And Man Making Assault On Nebraska Trees
Mother Nature And Man Making Assault On Nebraska Trees

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.

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Trees also are falling victim to high grain prices, which is evident by the piles of dead trees one sees when traveling the state.

A continuing drought may begin affecting exiting hard wood trees this year, Adams warns.

Add to these challenges the inevitable entry into Nebraska of the emerald ash borer. It is creeping closer to the Nebraska border from Iowa and Missouri. Ash trees make up a pretty good share of rural trees in the state.

We’ve written extensively in Nebraska Farmer about drought’s impact on dryland crops and rangeland. The impact on trees is overlooked by many in this state.

That’s unfortunate considering our license plates once billed us as the “Tree Planter’s State” and that J. Sterling Morton is credited with starting the Arbor Day tree planting tradition more than a century ago.

Settlers came to this portion of the Great Plains to farm and found a rich grassland prairie mostly devoid of trees, except for river and creek valleys. Those early Nebraskans struggled but worked hard to plant trees where they could, creating a rich tree-planting history in Nebraska in the process.

Today, it’s our tree resources that are struggling mightily.