Stabilizing the Sand in the Sandhills

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David Wedin's Sandhills dune restoration study tries to establish the best methods for stabilizing moving sand dunes.

Published on: July 11, 2011

Dave Wedin’s Sandhills dune restoration project tries to establish the best methods for stabilizing moving sand dunes.  

Last week, when I attended a field day at the University of Nebraska research facility at Barta Brothers Ranch near Rose, Dave Wedin, professor in plant and ecosystem ecology, presented information about his ongoing research on restoring vegetation on sand dunes in the Sandhills.

Wedin pointed out during his program that “grass is what makes the Sandhills unique.” Most sections of the world with large areas of sand dunes do not support grass or vegetation.

Eight hundred years ago, the Sandhills were most likely moving sand dunes too, like you would expect in any desert. He guesses that over the past 10,000 years, there have been at least four to six times when the Sandhills were moving dunes. Certainly, it is imaginable that they might become that way again.

It would be hard to imagine this year though, with most of the wet meadows of the Sandhills along Highway 20 not only wet, but filled with standing water. But we Nebraskans know how quickly drought can overtake our fragile terrain. We know that dry years follow wet years. And veteran Sandhills ranchers know how difficult it can be to restore a “blowout” of sand to some kind of vegetation in a dry year.

Wedin’s work on dune restoration attempts to do just that. He and his fellow researchers removed vegetation from several three-acre test plots on the Barta Brothers Ranch, to study the best methods of sand restoration. Wedin, whose father was an agronomist, said that he had learned from his father the importance of a clean seedbed, but when they removed all litter from the Sandhills seedbed, this concept backfired because the grass seed they planted simply blew away.

“Another thing I learned was that we were worried about moisture during the growing season, but we didn’t worry enough about the late winter winds in March and April,” Wedin said. On plots where shrubs and forbs like wild rose, yucca and plum were planted in 2010, survivability was initially very good, around 70%, but the winds of late winter destroyed the stand in many places. On shrub plantings this year, they did not disturb the land and planted in early May, to avoid the most extreme winds.

This season, researchers tested planting grass early compared to a later planting date. They also tested plantings with erosion blanket to hold the soil in place or hay mulch, similar to what many ranchers use to repair dunes. On part of the plots, researchers actually planted lambsquarter, to test if weeds hold the soil in place and help the restoration process. It will be interesting to watch the results of this project, because what Wedin and his team find may be helpful when true drought grips our state again, as we know that it will, and blowouts become more common than wet meadows.

“The future of the Sandhills depends on management,” Wedin said.