Tree nursery in the Sandhills
Did you know that Nebraska is home to the oldest federal seedling nursery in the nation? We travel to the Nebraska National Forest between Halsey and Thedford for a closer look.
We recently talked with nursery manager Richard Gilbert about this unique place. The Nebraska National Forest and the Bessey Nursery have been around for a long time. "Nebraska is the tree planter state, and the home of Arbor Day," Gilbert said. "Charles E. Bessey went with that, and he hoped to have a forest in Nebraska that would supply wood products for people. In 1901, they sent out a reconnaissance mission to find locations here in Nebraska, and this was one of those locations. In 1902, they signed a proclamation to make this a reserve area." By fall of that year, the ground had been turned and seeds were planted. As time went on, seedlings took hold, and the nursery and forest has played various roles through the years.
Today, the nursery plays a number of vital roles as one of only six federal nurseries in the nation. The nursery provides seedlings for the state's natural resources districts, and landowners are able to go in and purchase those trees for windbreaks and habitat plantings. But that's not the only role of the nursery. "We also have the other side, which is the container tree program," Gilbert said. "We ship all of these seedlings to the U.S. Forest Service Ranger Districts. It's mainly the Rocky Mountain Region which is region two. That covers Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas. Every year, we ship out almost one million container seedlings to those ranger districts." Gilbert says the seedlings that are shipped are actually allowed to go dormant, then they are put in a freezer until they are ready to be used.
Other important part of the nursery is the seed bank. "These ranger districts will actually collect cones for us," Gilbert said. "We get the seed out of the cones, we clean it up, get all of the debris out of it, and dry them down. Then, we store these seeds in a seed bank. That way, we don't lose the genetics in case of a natural disaster or wildfire. We put the seeds in a freezer, and they can sit there for up to 50 years if needed."
People are welcome to come to the Nebraska National Forest for tours of the Bessey Nursery. You are advised to call a week in advance to make the appointment. The area also provides a great campground and recreation area for fishing or enjoying the Middle Loup River.