Lower Loup NRD Update on the NRD Conservation Tree Program

Lower Loup NRD Update on the NRD Conservation Tree Program


Originally written for Loup Lines by Alan Bartels, Lower Loup NRD Information & Education Coordinator

Of the many conservation activities that Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts are tasked with, tree sales and the planting of trees might be the best known to Nebraska residents.

Each spring, technicians from the Lower Loup NRD use tractors and specialized equipment to “machine plant” long rows of trees on farms, ranches, and acreages across the District. The Lower Loup NRD also sells seedlings to property owners and land managers who prefer to do their own planting by hand. Although Nebraska has since shed its official “Tree Planters’ State” motto adopted by the Nebraska Legislature in 1895, our state is still proudly known as the “Home of Arbor Day.”

Nebraska’s “treeless plains” were never entirely void of trees. But wood became increasingly scarce on the prairie with each passing wave of westward pioneers. The homesteaders and Kinkaiders who set roots down in Nebraska knew the value of trees – even more so after a winter spent burning prairie coal (bison and cattle dung) for heat and for cooking (yum).

With their hopeful gaze on the future, those unselfish, visionary early Nebraskans planted trees knowing full well that it would be not them, but future generations who would benefit from their generous sweat equity.

Decades later, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s wreaked havoc on the heartland. Drought withered crops. Then came the swarms of locusts that devoured every green stem that dared to emerge from the earth. To add insult to economic disaster, with the protection of prairie grasses stripped away for row crop agriculture, the unforgiving wind whipped up dirty clouds that blew fertile topsoil across the plains and beyond.

In 2017, in reference to the Dust Bowl era, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln’s Nebraska Today stated, “Decades of environmentally abusive agricultural practices by Plains farmers created ‘black blizzards,’ dust storms so massive that Great Plains soil fell on Washington, D.C., and other eastern cities, even on ships at sea in the Atlantic Ocean.” 

Franklin D. Roosevelt, while serving as a state legislator and then the governor of New York, worked to institute forestry policies to take marginal farmland out of production. Years later as president, he put the Civilian Conservation Corps and Work Progress Administration to work planting 220 million trees on 33,000 farms in the Great Plains from the U.S.-Canada border to the U.S. border with Mexico. If lined up, those shelterbelts would stretch for 19,000 miles.

The program worked. As the trees grew, fierce winds were buffered, and soil was protected. The shelterbelts served as living snow fences while providing shelter for livestock and habitat for wildlife, and as sources for wood and food. Black blizzards faded into memory once soil conservation became common practice.

As we approach nine decades since our predecessors learned that valuable lesson, drought, and that persistent topsoil scattering wind, remain with us. At the same time, shelterbelts and natural wooded stands are being reduced or removed in some places to increase farmable acres, to accommodate larger equipment, and so irrigation pivots can complete circles.

Earth Day, which was founded in 1970, crowds in on Arbor Day’s even longer occupancy of late April. A day focused on the health of our planet is a good thing. Shouldn’t everyday be Earth Day?

This year, during the latter half of April, staff from the Information & Education department at the Lower Loup NRD will visit fourth grade classes across our District. Each class of eager learners will experience a short Arbor Day program before being handed their very own tree seedling. When our 2- to 3-week Arbor Day adventure is over (whew!) we will have handed out nearly 900 bare root tree seedlings.

Some of those trees won’t make it, but some will. I imagine those students growing up to one day show their own children and grandchildren the towering shade- providing and soil-anchoring pine they planted during their youth.

The Lower Loup NRD has planted more than 12 million trees over the last half century. This spring we will add tens of thousands more to that tree total thanks to forward thinking farmers, ranchers, and other residents willing to invest a little money, time, and energy today to benefit the Nebraskans of tomorrow.