Hand-planted forest offers scenic views, solitude

Published: Aug. 19, 2020 at 12:30 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - During a recent trip to the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, we learned how it was developed, and how it’s become a popular spot for recreation.

“I think what people should know, is that it’s a hidden gem.” That’s what Julie Bain, District Ranger of the Bessey Ranger District, had to say about The Nebraska National Forest. “We are two national forests: The Nebraska National Forest and the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest. And then, there are three different grasslands. The Fort Pierre Grassland in South Dakota, The Oglala National Grassland outside of Chadron, and the Buffalo Gap National Grassland in South Dakota.”

The Nebraska National Forest near Halsey is unique because it’s the biggest hand-planted national forest in the Western Hemisphere. “The original intent of this national forest was to provide wood for settlers, for firewood, for building, and so they started planting it in 1902,” Bain said. “That was the first planting. University of Nebraska-Lincoln scientist Charles E. Bessey came up with the idea to start this hand-planted forest. “It was originally about 35,000 acres. In the late 1960′s, there was a large fire called the Plum Fire, and it burned about 10,000 acres. Right now, we’ve got about 20,000 acres of hand-planted forest left.”

In the beginning, around a dozen species of trees were planted here. “The ones that have remained, thrived and have been successful are primarily Ponderosa Pine, Eastern Red Cedar, and Jack Pine,” Bain said. The last planting of trees happened in the late 1950′s or early 60′s. “It never really provided wood for settlers. By the time the forest grew up, people had figured out ways to get wood elsewhere. So now, the forest is really a huge source of recreation.”

There is an incredible ATV trail located in the forest. In fact, we’re told the forest offers the only public ATV trails in the state, and there is about 36 miles of trails for people to use. “It’s a great place for families. There’s a lot of gentle recreation for children, so they are safe on the ATV trails, especially in UTV’s when they are buckled in,” Bain said. “There’s a gentle float out there on the Middle Loup. We have a basketball court for kids. The kids can ride their bikes on the campground. It’s on the bird flyway, so there’s good bird watching opportunities. We are seeing more kayakers and canoers, and we have a fish pond.”

Along with the recreation, the area also houses the Bessey Nursery, which is the oldest federal nursery in the United States. It offers one of the largest seed banks, where seeds from trees from other states are stored. Actual seedlings are also grown to help support other forest areas.

People from all 50 states and 12 countries have come to experience this gem in north central Nebraska in just the last couple of years. Those who oversee the forest hope you will, too. “While we may not have the spectacular mountain views, it makes up for it in not having so many people,” Bain said. “So when you come here, you are guaranteed to find some time to yourself.”

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