After wildfire, a hand-planted Nebraska forest confronts its history
Last October, wildfire sparked by an ATV consumed roughly a quarter of this living landmark in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills. But in a man-made forest, officials say, there’s no roadmap for recovery.
By the time Tedd Teahon climbed the Scott Lookout Tower at the Nebraska National Forest, around 2:18 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 2, the Bovee Fire had already climbed from the understory to the crown, from the cedar to the pine, and was now barreling north toward the highway.
The state 4-H campground stood directly in its path: the historic lodge, the education building, the cabins. So did the fire tower beneath him. And the Bessey Nursery, too, the oldest federal seedling nursery in the United States.
“I didn't know if we’d save any of the buildings, to be honest,” he said.
The fire management officer waited as long as he could, long enough to watch the inferno “jump the fire break like it wasn’t even there.” He called back the units still en route to the flames, called in the air tankers, redirected the local volunteer fire departments.
He soon found himself enveloped in smoke with the fate of the forest -- once the largest man-made forest on earth -- hazy as the road ahead. But for just a second more, he scanned the trees from above and the Sandhills rippling in between, and finally descended the 50-foot tower before the flames could lick it away.
“We've always known this might happen. All of our trees are hand-planted, every four feet, and there's only been so much thinning done,” Teahon said, citing the district’s limited resources. “It’s mother nature cleaning herself up.”
Sparked by an overturned all-terrain vehicle and kindled by months of extreme drought, the Bovee Fire roared to life three miles south of the Bessey Ranger District before scorching roughly 5,000 acres, or nearly a quarter of Nebraska’s storied hand-planted forest. The nursery was spared, but it swallowed the 4-H camp and the fire tower and then jumped the highway, too, burning another 14,000 acres of private rangeland. It also claimed the life of Mike Moody, a volunteer firefighter from nearby Purdum, who suffered a heart attack while on duty.
While the Bovee Fire continues to smolder in the district’s “tree dump” more than two months later, the rest of the forest has fallen quiet with winter. Most of the tourists have migrated elsewhere like the emergency personnel before them. Many of the birds and insects, too. And with the hush, said Greg Wright, a wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service, has come more than a little contemplation.
“The ecological implications, and the question of ‘what happens next,’ have kept my naturalist mind spinning,” he said. “In a forest without precedent, the outcomes also are without precedent.”
Drawing from federal seed banks like that housed at the Bessey Nursery, the Forest Service often replants following high-intensity wildfires to hasten regeneration. But there’s no roadmap -- no “reference condition,” Wright said -- for a 120-year-old forest planted in the middle of the largest intact temperate grassland on earth.
To further complicate matters, more than half the forest today is composed of eastern red cedar, a hardy native species increasingly prone to encroachment. Curbed by sweeping wildfires prior to white settlement, the scrappy evergreen now threatens to dismantle the entire Great Plains grassland biome.
Yet both ecosystems -- the forest and the prairie it threatens to swallow -- fall under the district’s purview. In terms of management, Wright said, “it’s a harder target to hit.” Crews have taken preliminary measures to clear the roads and ATV trails of fallen timber and other immediate hazards inside the forest, but the deeper philosophical -- even existential -- questions remain.
Should they prioritize the forest, so deeply cherished by central Nebraskans, or the prairie, one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth? Should they favor woodland species, currently finding refuge in this ecological island, or the grassland obligates who rely on the open plains?
“What can you do to make that 30,000 acres that Nebraska holds so dear as ecologically functional and important and non-threatening to the other environment as possible?” Wright said.
The Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands has generally favored the latter, officials say, a triage dictated by limited resources and the pace of habitat collapse. Be it cutting or controlled burns, cedar removal is much cheaper in open pasture than a crowded forest, where they often serve as a ladder fuel for the canopy of pines overhead. Following guidelines from researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Bessey Ranger District now burns roughly 10,000 acres of grassland every year to “protect the core” and keep the so-called “Green Glacier” at bay.
“Given a limited budget and limited staff, my choice is keeping the grasslands grass,” said district ranger Julie Bain.
But the burn zone is another matter. Given the forest’s cultural significance, many locals -- including Teahon and other USFS personnel -- would prefer to see it replanted, noting the many recreational opportunities the tree cover has long provided: hiking, camping, hunting, ATVing, horse riding and more. Others emphasize the sheer magnitude of the Sandhills, stretching nearly 12.5 million acres across north-central Nebraska. By comparison, they say, the forest is merely a blip on the radar.
“I look at it like a city park,” said Mark Brohman, executive director of the Wachiska Audubon Society, who grew up nearby and lived in the forest for several summers while researching his master’s thesis on pine moths in the mid-1980s.
“I know some say there should never have been a forest planted there in the middle of the Sandhills, but it has become an important part of the state for so many people,” he said.
Brohman noted that natural regeneration “is very slow and almost non-existent in most parts of the forest,” and that without encouragement, significant portions of the burn zone may never see pine trees again. At the same time, he argued, reverting to native grassland is a dubious proposition after more than a century of fire suppression, afforestation, cattle ranching and the demise of the American bison, a keystone species.
“Some might find it weird that a biologist isn’t just advocating for nature to take its course and return to grass,” he said. “But mankind is part of the landscape now. Unless we go to a ‘Buffalo Commons,’ the grasslands in and around the forest will never be ‘unaltered’ again.”
Window for discovery
Just days after the Bovee Fire, district ranger Julie Bain surveyed the aftermath from the backseat of Teahon’s truck, shaking her head in disbelief as they rambled through row after (perfectly spaced) row of blackened cedar and pine. Once soft with evergreens, the hills now crested like the spine of a porcupine, a tableau of mottled sand and spikes. Even then, she said, her “more rational ecological side” encouraged their return to grassland. Over the past two months, however, her perspective has begun to shift.
“I think the re-frame for me has been that, ecologically speaking, getting it back to a grassland is not likely,” she said. “Now that we’ve planted it as a forest, it’s kind of a forest. It makes me feel like we should continue on the experimental phase.”
The Forest Service could use the burn zone to test the adaptability of different tree species to climate change. It could try new hardwoods, she said, or even demo a food forest, planting fruit trees and other edible plants and shrubs. Because the Bovee Fire swept through at the end of the growing season, they won’t likely make any firm decisions for several months. But whatever the path forward, she insisted, “One thing I can say for sure: If we replant, it will not be eastern red cedar.”
Further debate centers around the “snags,” or fire-killed trees, left behind. The Forest Service would ideally host a salvage timber sale, Bain said, allowing purchasers to log the burn zone. But they would first need to complete an environmental analysis, according to the National Environmental Policy Act, and the commercial value of ponderosa pine -- the most commonly logged species in the forest -- drops precipitously after nine months, when they begin to decay.
“If it takes us too long to do the environmental analysis…they may not have very much value,” she said, adding that sawmills and other logging infrastructure in the area is virtually nonexistent. “I don't know if anyone will want them.”
Regardless, some critics say post-fire logging is a mistake too often repeated by the Forest Service, which pockets 100% of the proceeds, and one that runs counter to the latest scientific research. According to Chad Hanson, forest and wildfire ecologist with the John Muir Project, so-called “snag forest habitat” is critical for numerous species, including bluebirds and woodpeckers.
“What we now know from stacks of studies is that snag forest habitat, where most or all trees have been killed by fire, is comparable to old-growth forest in terms of native biodiversity and wildlife abundance,” he said. “Saying that 4,000 acres of snag forest is ‘too many’ acres is just as ignorant as saying that 4,000 acres of mature and old-growth forest is too many.”
For his part, Wright appreciates the value of snag forest habitat and continues to weigh the pros and cons of letting it stand. But he said the artificial nature of the Nebraska National Forest and the overabundance of eastern red cedar trees pose additional factors that quickly muddle the equation. While bluebirds nest in the cavities of dead trees, for example, they forage in open meadows and “habitat edges.” If an abundance of dangerous snags prevent access to the burn zone by Forest Service personnel -- a legitimate possibility in such a densely planted forest -- those meadows may ultimately be crowded out by the recruitment of new cedar trees.
“Add in the needs of other species, or better yet entire guilds -- grassland birds have declined by more than 30% since the 1970s -- and you can see just how complex habitat management can become,” he warned. “Is a bluebird more important than a white-tailed jackrabbit? A meadowlark than a woodpecker? I can’t stress enough how important a long vision is here.”
What virtually everyone agrees on, however, is that the Bovee Fire -- despite the loss of life and property -- has opened a new window for discovery. Will the cedars repopulate the burn zone? Will the ponderosa pine resprout? Will the grassland reclaim its ancient terrain? Will ATV enthusiasts continue to ride the trails? Will the campers come back? Will the weeds? The deer?
“Every time we have something like this happen, it’s an opportunity to speak from experience the next time,” Wright said. “That would be the biggest screw up: to not learn from it.”
And the Forest Service isn’t the only one monitoring the recovery. Tala Awada, a physiological plant ecologist at UNL, has been conducting research in the forest for roughly 20 years, studying the underlying mechanics -- the soil microbes, the hydrology, the tree rings, or “dendroecology” -- and especially the unruly behavior of the eastern red cedar. Now, she said, “We have to establish new science to see what happens after the fire.”
She and her colleagues at the university recently submitted a grant proposal to record not only what system re-emerges in the burn zone -- whether grassland or woodland -- but also what factors most influence its recovery, be it climate, soil health, water availability or something else entirely. They’ll do so, in part, by establishing new demonstration plots in the burn zone and comparing them with the 17 previously established plots that avoided the Bovee Fire.
Their long-term research has already shown that soils beneath eastern red cedar stands are significantly drier, store less carbon and are often more prone to erosion. Fire adds another twist to the equation.
“We really don't know its fate,” she said, but given the trajectory of the “Green Glacier” on both federal and private land, and the increasing frequency of wildfire in the American West, their findings may reverberate well beyond the Nebraska National Forest alone.
“These forests are going to have fire sooner or later, so Halsey provides this fantastic opportunity to understand and extrapolate what’s going to happen elsewhere,” Awada said.
And perhaps if those who care for the forest can resist implementing their own will over the system, and start thinking of nature as a co-production, said Rosetta Elkin, research associate at Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, they might learn to reframe the story altogether. In her latest book, Plant Life: The Entangled Politics of Afforestation, she focuses in part on the Nebraska National Forest. Unlike other afforestation campaigns, often mechanically forced and utilizing massive amounts of water, she considers this “hand-planted forest started by a group of nurserymen curious about ecology” as a “beautiful collaboration between species.”
But the healthiest and most resilient forests are those in multiple stable states: very young, very old and everything in between. Given that most of the trees in the Nebraska National Forest are roughly the same age, she said, it’s less a forest than a plantation.
“If you want the Nebraska National Forest to become a forest, you have to accept that it’s going to go through disturbance,” she said. “I don't see a problem in that. I see an opportunity. It's just the narrative that has to shift.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, USFS wildlife biologist Greg Wright surveyed the burn zone on foot, a thin crust of snow crunching beneath him. Absent their evergreen foliage, the blackened pines punctuated the dunes in perfect order. Their shadows etched the snow like a woodcut print. But every so often, interrupting the forest’s factory precision, a pair of tracks veered wildly off course. A coyote. A deer. Simple reminders, Wright said, that with every disturbance, there are winners, and there are losers, and that not all is lost.