By Eric Fowler
I knew that headline would get people’s attention when it topped a NEBRASKAland Magazine article I wrote in 2009, which appears below. That was exactly what I wanted to do. If not, I could’ve written a more politically correct title like “Remove an invasive woody plant if you have time.”
As you see from the lead paragraph, I also anticipated getting some letters, because I know some people are so set in their ways that nothing you say can convince them otherwise. What we received was hate mail. It was as if they read only the headline. One writer called my views “slanted” and “distorted,” and right after he touted the same tree planting programs that I had given kudos to in my story, penned this:
“What’s next on your agenda, “Burn a Flag for Independence Day” or “Degrade a Vet for Veterans Day?” I hate to think what Fowler would write for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Our forefathers had the knowledge and foresight to see what value trees could have in our state and honored the efforts of many people, past and present, with Arbor Day. I suggest that you keep personal and agency agendas out of your magazine and concentrate on the richness and history that make Nebraska such a wonderful state.”
Our forefathers didn’t have the foresight to see how invasive some trees, even a native like eastern red cedar, could be once its natural control – fire – was controlled. They still don’t. While some “resource” agencies continue to plant cedars by the truckload, many others who share the same agenda as the Commission are spending countless dollars each year removing invasive trees from grasslands and woodlands where they don’t belong, including some that were planted there.
I, too, was once in the “don’t kill trees” camp, which is where I would guess the majority of Nebraskans are. Just last week, I spoke with someone who lamented a plan to remove trees along a stretch of the Platte River to restore the ecosystem to its natural form. The deer and turkeys need the trees, he said. They really don’t and will still have plenty, I said.
Just as Smoky Bear did a wonderful job of convincing everyone that wildfires were bad (but not telling them that fire was a natural part of the ecosystem and some fire was good), Arbor Day has done a great job of getting us to plant trees and think that all trees are good. (They’re not).
So on Arbor Day, please do plant a nice tree in your yard. And then go cut or burn a bunch down in your prairie.
NEBRASKAland Magazine, April 2009
By Eric Fowler
We’d always like to get more letters from our readers here at NEBRASKAland. This should help. As you celebrate Arbor Day on April 24, go out and kill a tree.
I know, saying something like that in Nebraska, home of Arbor Day and once officially known as the “Tree Planters State” is blasphemy. But before you send a lynch mob after me, let me explain.
Nebraska is a prairie state. Accounts of early explorers tell us that there were trees along rivers and streams, in the Pine Ridge and other escarpments, and in deep, shaded canyons. But elsewhere there was grass as far as the eye could see. Periodic wildfires thinned the forest, keeping it healthy, and kept trees confined. As soon as man began suppressing fire, forests started creeping into the grasslands that hadn’t been plowed.
Nebraska’s Forests 2005, a report by the US Forest Service, estimated there are 352 million trees covering 1.2 million acres, or 2.5 percent of the state. Forested acres in the state increased by 500,000 acres between 1983 and 2005, including a 300,000-acre jump since 1993. This followed the loss of 185,000 acres of forest, mostly to cropland development, after the first inventory in 1955.
Eastern red cedar and Rocky Mountain juniper made up a large part of the increase, with acres tripling to 172,000 from 1993 to 2005 and the number of trees doubling to 113 million.
More cedars is seldom a good thing. The highly prolific species has invaded the rare tallgrass prairie in eastern Nebraska, the loess hills mixed-grass prairies of southwestern and central Nebraska, the pine forest of the Niobrara River Valley, and the understory of hardwood and cottonwood forests throughout the state.
Cedars are not the only problem. Gray-leaf dogwood and other shrubs choke the understory of many riparian forests. Russian olive, a non-native species, has overtaken many meadows in the North Platte River Valley. And ponderosa pines have spread from the steep draws and slopes to the grassed ridgetops, valleys and meadows in the Pine Ridge, and forest density has also increased.
In the case of pines and cedars, the consequences of having more trees can be catastrophic wildfires. In 2002, thousands of acres of pastureland, some of it choked with cedars, burned south of Brady. In 2006, four wildfires scorched 65,000 acres of pine forest and grassland in the Pine Ridge, and another fire burned 3,000 acres and destroyed 10 homes on the edge of Valentine, causing $1.3 million in damages. Other areas are ripe for a disaster.
For ranchers, there are financial implications. Where cedars grow, grass doesn’t. And where there are a few cedars, there will soon be more if steps aren’t taken to control them. Eventually, there could be little grass for cattle.
Wildlife is affected by tree encroachment, as well, especially in grasslands, one of the least conserved ecosystems in the world. Many species of grassland birds are in decline. And the bare ground beneath cedars is highly erodible, affecting water quality in streams.
Yes, trees are important. They clean the air, save on heating and cooling bills by shading our homes and blocking the winter wind, and extend the life of our streets. There is most certainly a need for trees in our communities, and programs like those of the Arbor Day Foundation and the Nebraska Forest Service’s ReTree Nebraska are worthy causes (the ironically named latter focuses on urban forests). Planting a tree in your yard is a good thing.
But do your homework before planting a tree in the country. Deer, wild turkeys and even native woodland bird species have plenty of tree cover already. In some places, they probably have more than they need. Planting a plum thicket for pheasants and quail is a good thing. Planting a cedar windbreak might have some benefits, but it might also become a problem in years to come.
If you really want to make a difference for wildlife, cut down trees or conduct a prescribed burn in your grasslands or in the understory of your oak or cottonwood forest. Through numerous programs, the Commission and many of its conservation partners are working diligently to restore these ecosystems both on land they own and by assisting private landowners.
If you don’t own land, you can’t just grab your chainsaw and start cutting down trees on someone else’s, but you can help by making a donation to the Nebraska Wildlife Conservation Fund or one of the many groups that have made grassland restoration a priority in Nebraska.
The cost of controlling the trees where they aren’t welcome is huge and the work may never be done, but it has begun. Part of that job includes teaching everyone that not every tree is a good tree.