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Nebraskans, rabid tree-planters

May 2, 2010

The first time I drove westbound through Nebraska, bound for Scottsbluff, I saw directional signage for the “Nebraska National Forest.”

I scoffed. A forest? In Nebraska? You’ve got to be kidding me.

It’s true. There is a Nebraska National Forest. In fact, there are three forested areas within the Nebraska forest system: the Pine Ridge District, the Samuel L. McKelvie forest, and the Bessey District. (See here for a map.)

But, as they teach you on Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others.

Do you know which one is the outlier?

(A sylvan interlude whilst you think . . .)

If you guessed Pine Ridge, you’re correct. It’s the only one of the three that’s a naturally-occurring forest.

The other two?

Completely planted by people.

That’s right — the trees within the 115,703 acres of the McKelvie forest and the 90,000 acres of the Bessey District were plopped down into grassland ecosystems by human beings.

Did you know that Arbor Day was founded in Nebraska? Trees are so important to the Husker heart that Arbor Day is an official state holiday, and state government offices are closed.

It’s in Nebraskans’ genetic makeup to impose trees on the landscape. Lisa Knopp described the situation in “Far Brought,” which I read in The Big Empty.

When the first white immigrants arrived in what is now Nebraska, 3 percent of the state was forested, or rather, 97 percent of the area was grassland — tallgrass prairie in the eastern third of the state; mixed grass in the Sandhills and south-central part of the state; short and mixed grasses in the Panhandle. This landscape didn’t satisfy the overwhelming majority of the immigrants who were what Kansas historian James C. Malin called “Anglo-American forest men.” Part of the baggage these newcomers brought with them from Europe or the eastern United States was, in Malin’s words, the belief that “the presence of forests was natural and the absence of trees was an unmistakable sign of deficiency or abnormality of nature.” So, when immigrants, who rarely if ever had seen the sun rise or set on an unobstructed horizon, arrived on the Great Plains, they felt overwhelmed, frightened, or diminished by the open land and sky. (pp 35-36)

I understand that feeling of diminishment. Big sky country can make you feel small and challenge your importance in a way that makes some folks feel uncomfortable.

One early Nebraskan who didn’t let that big-sky feeling get in the way of his ambitions was J. Sterling Morton, the instigator of Arbor Day. As Knopp wrote, “Morton failed to see that treelessness and barrenness are not equivalent states.” (Incidentally, J. Sterling’s son Joy Morton founded the Morton Salt Company and the Morton Arboretum, which I visited on field trips when I was young.)

And so, every April, Nebraskans and folks around the country take to their shovels in a noble effort to increase the number of trees in the United States: trees that provide shade, which reduces the “heat island” effect of cities and cuts energy used to cool buildings; trees that help filter air pollutants and reduce excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; trees that provide habitat for wildlife.

But, as Knopp points out, the Nebraska roots (ahem) of this holiday, which is proudly proclaimed on signage at the state borders, asks Nebraskans “to identify ourselves by a movement that sought to make Nebraska look like something other than Nebraska.”

Happy (slightly late) Arbor Day, everyone.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 2, 2010 5:54 pm

    Do you miss doing these?

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