The Darker Side of Tree Planting in the Great Plains

As we near the celebration of National Arbor Day in the United States, I think it’s worth reflecting a little on our relationship with tree planting here in central North America.  The simple practice of planting a tree, of course, is perfectly fine.  Putting trees around a house for shade or protection from wind can be eminently sensible, and there are plenty of important efforts going on to reforest areas where woodland habitat has been lost.  When the right trees are being put in the right places, everything’s great.

Trees around farmsteads, yards, and towns make great sense and provide lots of benefits.

However, as someone who has dedicated his career to prairie conservation, I’m painfully aware of the way tree planting and its aftereffects can create problems in grasslands.  I don’t need to detail those impacts here.  If you need a refresher, you can read one of my previous posts on the topic (this one or this one.)

As regular readers of this blog have probably noticed, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the relationship between people and prairie.  After all, prairie conservation will only be successful if people see grasslands as valuable.  To the uninitiated, prairies often seem empty, in part because the elements of nature most people are drawn to (especially mountains and trees) are missing.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, there are strong ties back to the origins of Arbor Day in 1872 and the culture that spawned that holiday.

Trees are obviously valuable for firewood, building materials, and other resources. It’s not completely surprising that European settlers in the Great Plains would see tree planting as important. However, their desire for trees went far beyond their simple utilitarian values.

J. Sterling Morton, the creator of the first Arbor Day, was not a fan of treeless prairies.  Instead, he shared the view of many peers that the Great Plains was in need of dramatic transformation.  Planting trees was a crucial part of the plan. 

Fifteen years after originating Arbor Day in Nebraska, Morton gave a speech about its importance and impact.  During the speech, he bemoaned (with justification) the way ancient eastern U.S. forests had been rampantly cleared.  He then intimated that the prairies of the Great Plains were a kind of deserved punishment for those westward-spreading woodland destroyers.

“So these treeless plains, stretching from Lake Michigan to the Rocky Mountains, were unfolded to the vision of the pioneer as a great lesson to teach him, by contrast with the grand forests whence he had just emerged, the indispensability of woodlands and their economical use.  Almost rainless, only habitable by bringing forest products from other lands, these prairies, by object teaching, inculcated tree planting as a necessity and the conservation of the few fire-scarred forests along their streams as an individual and public duty.  Hence out of our physical environments have grown this anniversary and the intelligent zeal of Nebraskans in establishing woodlands where they found only the monotony of plain, until to-day this State stands foremost in practical forestry among all the members of the American Union.”

There is no apparent recognition of irony in Morton’s proposal to destroy prairies after bemoaning the similar destruction of forests.  That, alone, is a particularly significant indicator of how prairies were viewed by many at the time – not as an ecosystem or resource, but as a barrier to progress or, at best, raw material from which something of use could be created.

Prairies like this were seen as empty wastelands by people like J. Sterling Morton.

Tragically, Morton and others with his beliefs didn’t just want to convert the prairie into forest – or, more accurately, an agrarian paradise with a mixture of rowcrops and neat rows of trees.  They subscribed to the concept of manifest destiny, which promoted and justified the inalienable rights of white settlers to conquer and occupy the continent.  Here are Morton’s own words on that subject, from an 1859 speech in which he shares his thoughts about prairies and the people he felt were destined to transform and inhabit the plains.

“Everywhere these rich and rolling prairies, which had lain for unnumbered centuries as blank leaves in the history of the World’s progress, were being written upon by the hand of toil, snatched from the obscurity of uselessness, and forever dedicated to the support of the Anglo-Saxon race. The sunshine seemed brighter, and the rains and the dews more beautiful and refreshing, because they descended upon the earth and found it not all a wild and desolate waste. Seed had been sown, farms opened, and every energy had been taxed to make the Territory of Nebraska self-sustaining. It was the first genuine effort in the right direction.”

“The Anglo-Saxon race are being driven by the hand of God across the continent of America and are to inhabit and have dominion over it all. These prairies, which have been cleared and made ready for the plow by the hand of God himself, are intended for the abiding place of the pioneers in the progress of the world.”

Morton then goes on to talk about indigenous people in such a vile way I can’t even bring myself to quote him here.  You’re welcome to read his thoughts yourself if you like – they’re in the same speech (page 211).  Let’s just say he didn’t have a high opinion of Native Americans. 

This is not a blog post about bashing J. Sterling Morton, by the way.  I’m just holding him up as a prominent and outspoken example of a common attitude toward prairies among white people in the 1880’s.  If you’re interested in a thoughtful essay on Morton and racism, I suggest this blog post by Nebraska historian David Bristow. 

Getting back to tree planting, the strong desire to transform Nebraska’s grasslands into woodlands continued beyond J. Sterling Morton’s lifetime.  Charles Bessey, a prominent botanist who did a lot of great things for science for education, was also somewhat obsessed with proving that the Nebraska Sandhills could support trees.  He and his colleagues experimented with pine plantations in that sandy grassland landscape and eventually planted huge blocks of trees that totaled about 30,000 acres by the early 1900’s. Those wooded areas still exist today and are promoted as the largest hand-planted forest in the U.S

In 1907, a combination of those tree plantations was designated as the Nebraska National Forest, something many Nebraskans were and are proud of.  I’ve always seen that whole process as a kind of sad appeal for respect (‘See, we DO have forests in Nebraska!’)  It’s like an accomplished and popular actor, musician, and philanthropist feeling inferior their whole life because they’re not good at basketball – and repeatedly (and unsuccessfully) trying out for teams. 

Some of Nebraska’s natural woodlands – and grasslands – were added to the National Forest System in the 1950’s, including portions of the Pine Ridge in the Nebraska panhandle. However, it’s particularly ironic and frustrating that the tree plantation portions of our National Forest sites are located in the Nebraska Sandhills, the largest intact grassland on the continent and of the most important prairies in the world. Fortunately, the wooded portions of those designated lands make up a relatively small proportion of the total area. Those sites are actually a great place for the public to experience and explore Sandhills prairies, since the majority of that landscape is in private ownership.

Pretty, isn’t it? But wouldn’t it be even better if you added trees? (Please say no.)

Many Nebraskans today still feel a lot of pride in being ‘The Tree Planter State’, even though that nickname was officially changed in 1945 to ‘The Cornhusker State’ to honor the University of Nebraska football team.  Beyond Nebraska’s borders, the legacy of J. Sterling Morton, Charles Bessey, and others like them persists across much of the prairie landscapes of North America.  Instead of feeling proud to live in a state and region of incredible grasslands, many people pine (eye roll) for landscapes full of forests and mountains.

Over and over, I watch people buy small parcels of prairie and immediately plant trees around the borders.  Grassland acreages invaded by eastern red cedars or other trees are often appraised at a higher real estate value than uninvaded grasslands because of their ‘recreation value’.  People who write angry letters about trees being cleared to make way for a shopping center don’t bat an eye when a prairie is plowed under or allowed to be overtaken by Siberian elms.  Prairies represent the long boring part of the drive from Omaha to the Rocky Mountains. 

Invasive trees like these eastern red cedars are devastating to prairie habitats and livestock production but can still increase property values because of a perceived recreational value tied to hunting and aesthetics.

We have a lot of work to do if we’re going to get the public to support prairie conservation.  Tree planting isn’t the problem, and neither are the people and organizations who advocate for it.  Trees are very nice.  Some of my best friends have trees.

The problem is that tree planting is linked to an unsavory and unfortunate legacy in the Great Plains that still colors perceptions today.  We need to separate the reasonable practice of planting a tree for shade, shelter, or fruit from the concept that white Europeans have a God-given right and duty to convert barren prairie wastelands into neat rows of corn and trees.  I’m sure most people aren’t consciously making that connection as they dig a hole for their new apple tree seedling, but that doesn’t mean the cultural influence isn’t lurking in the background.

National Arbor Day falls at the end of April because that’s a good time to plant trees in Nebraska and much of the rest of the country.  Late April also happens to be a great time to watch queen bumble bees gathering pollen and nectar from the nascent blooms of prairie wildflowers.  Migratory birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies are returning from the south and many other animals are emerging from their winter burrows in the thatch or soil.  Bison are suckling their tiny red calves, meadowlarks and chorus frogs are singing, and harriers are coursing silently back and forth across grasslands, hunting for mice.

May I suggest that National Arbor Day is a great time to introduce a friend to your favorite prairie?  Or to buy some native prairie plants from your local nursery.  Volunteer your time cutting invasive trees out of a nearby grassland.  Heck, if the weather is nice – you can go practice your jump shot if you’re still holding on to that dream. 

You can even plant a tree if you really want to.  Just please – pretty please – don’t plant it in a prairie.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

32 thoughts on “The Darker Side of Tree Planting in the Great Plains

  1. Another dark side to the planting of trees across the prairie. Remember the Spotted Owl, you know the one that caused an uproar over logging of old growth forests on the west coast? Barred Owls were long stopped from migrating west by the barrier of the Great Plains until we planted so many trees that it has now invaded the Pacific Northwest from the east and become the greatest threat to the rapidly declining Spotted Owl.

  2. I’m reminded of one of the comments of the anti-restoration ringleaders whose efforts resulted in a years-long ban on restoration activities in the Cook County Forest Preserves (https://www.jstor.org/stable/43440074) who stated in an interview that forests were “cool and clean” while prairies are full of “uncontrolled grasses and weeds.” This statement struck me as totally bizarre. The destructive attitudes European settlers imported into so-called North America which arbitrarily assigned higher value to certain ecosystems (and people), such as you describe here, is where I think that kind of bias comes from. I hope with every prairie that we painstakingly restore that we distance ourselves from the harm caused by that bias. Thanks for this fantastic piece.

  3. I’m of mixed feelings about this. While we have a science of ecology, it is hardly yet a predictive science. Ecology is worse than climate. We are nowhere near, but in these times of change desperately need a “Ecological Engineering” discipline.

    Still, a few lessons come thorugh:

    * Diverse ecologies are more stable and resiliant than less diverse ones. As a student playing around with early computers I tried creating a simple ecology: grass, sheep, wolves. I could never get it to balance. Usually the wolves ate all the sheep, then starved. Or the sheep ate all the grass and everyone starved.

    I found that one simple trick made it work: Fences. If there was an inner fence that kept out sheep, and an outer fence that kept out wolves, but grass could expand outside the inner fence, and sheep could venture into wolf country, it would balance.

    * Edges have more diversity than the habitat on either side.

    These two items make me want to plant trees on the prairies. Not huge qantities. But rows here and there.

    But that same idea makes me accepting of clearcut blocks in the woods.

    A mature conifer forest is almost a wasteland underneath. Its so dark you can grow little but mushrooms and lawyers.

    It also makes me more accepting of new species. Sure, scots pine isn’t native to North America. But a forest that is a mix of scots, lodgepole, jack, and ponderosa is going to be more resiliant than one of a single species.

  4. In one way it’s kinda peculiar that the European settlers thought so little of the prairies, when one knows that back in the 18 hundreds and earlier, most of the European continent was in fact semi-natural hay fields and pasture. So there wasn’t actually much of trees around in Europe back then. But maybe that was the problem, in that the lack of trees was associated with hard labor and extreme poverty, and so the settlers saw only more poverty in the prairies. And of course, one could, and still can, make good money from trees. So when the artificial fertilizers were invented, trees were planted absolutely everywhere food crops couldn’t be grown. To the extent that almost nothing of the former European semi-natural grasslands remain today. Sad story really. Personally I have nothing against trees, as long as it’s the right tree in the right place.

  5. I have enjoyed the reading the book American Canopy by Eric Rutkow. Among other topics, he does spend some time discussing the tree planting fervor of Morton and others.

  6. Thank you thank you for writing this post.

    As Nerlekar and Veldman (High plant diversity and slow assembly of old-growth grasslands. http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1922266117 Nerlekar and Veldman) state, “We encourage environmental policymakers to prioritize old-growth grassland conservation and work to elevate the status of old-growth grasslands, alongside old-growth forests, in the public consciousness.

    Beyond the recognition of prairies as the amazing old-growth communities they are, there must also be recognition of prairie as the complex community of plants, animals, AND indigenous people who lived and intimately knew this landscape for millennia. Now it is more than time we engage in, advocate for a process of restitution and restoration of relationships between the prairie landscape with ALL of its inhabitants.

    • I believe that tree planting or tillage agriculture, including artificial fertilizers and pesticides etc., destroys the below ground fungi communities; which many plants depend upon. And that this fact to a large extent explains why a lot of species have difficulty recolonizing restored or secondary grasslands.

    • “Old-growth grasslands”. I like that. What is sometimes forgotten is how long some prairie species can live. Perhaps a topic for another article Chris: lifespan and aging of individual prairie plants. I have a compass plant and lead plants on my old growth grassland that I’m willing to bet are quite old.

  7. Great points. Now to spread the word that prairie has inherent value and needs no “improvement” from the addition of trees. Indeed, that grass and forbs need to have their own appreciation day!

  8. Great article. In 2017 my wife and I began a prairie restoration project on a small parcel of land that had been an old horse hay field. It had been untouched for years and the black locust (among other invasive) began to “walk” from north to south as the years flew by. We have been taking out black locust, an introduced and invasive plant in Wisconsin ever since. The good news is that the mature locust make good fire wood for my outdoor oven. A balanced ecology so to speak.

  9. I was at the local cemetery where I take my walks, (it has some trees on it that provided some nice shade) and I was musing on whether trees had a place on the prairies…and if there was a certain kind of tree that naturally/originally grew out here…LOL!

  10. Excellent article. I work in a region at the edge of where historically prairie and woodlands met. Here we constantly see people trying to force prairie into what was wooded and force trees into what was prairie. Unfortunately, there is too little of both woodland and prairie habitat left.

  11. One piece here that is missing or not emphasized enough is FIRE!
    Fire renews!!!! Fire restores!!
    Certain animals and plants need fire!
    Fire is a part of ecology, and certainly just trees!

        • growing trees on the prairie or anywhere REQUIRES fire suppression!
          The mega fires out in California are mega fires because of fire suppression. Even the forests would be different if even small fires were allowed to occur, BUT of course now those forests are also residential areas!
          The ‘Tree Huggers’ simply don’t understand fire and it’s importance. You can only imagine a forested ‘prairie’ area that had fires suppressed and then when they are big and dense enough and in a dry windy season of the year , BOOM, now you have a mega fire, burning down several ‘old prairie towns’. Those kinds of fires cannot be controlled until the weather changes.

          I belong to the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in the Northwest Sands of northwestern Wisconsin, (a sandy soil 100-600ft deep) that is a pure sandy soil that allowed Barrens type habitat to survive. The Barrens has a different plant structure and even animal structure that depends on a ‘Barrens Habitat’. The tree huggers simply don’t understand the differences! There is a difference and Fire is the secret ingredient. Fire is natural part of nature.

          • Yeah, I can only agree, but I suppose it’s the same problem as always, that somebody want to make money from growing and then selling trees for lumber etc.

          • I love that barrens area along the Namekagon, but haven’t done much hiking through it. Is there a trail/area you recommend? Have they been able to conduct any prescribed burns in there lately?

            Folks up there are afraid of fire, not because the timber in the barrens area is particularly valuable (jack pine mostly) but they fear a runaway forest fire – northern Wisconsin has a history of devastating wildfires due to poor forestry practices when they logged off all the old growth. I suspect that’s a major reason more prescribed burns aren’t done up there (but I would like to see that done more often).

          • Yes, Patrick, they do burns in sections of the NBWA every year! You can call the NBWA and find out which section, ‘burn unit’, was burned and when.
            There are no formal maintained walking trails but their are different small roads used to confine the burn units. You can walk on any of those of course. Interesting the Friends group is thinking about ‘marking’ foot paths through areas at different seasons of the year and also have a paper to tell you what to look for. Haven’t developed yet but you are always welcome to walk anywhere. There is a fascinating bog in the south unit, and of course late June early July is my favorite flower the wood lilly. Also check out the blueberries beginning second week of July.
            Check out our Friends website for events, http://www.fnbwa.org

        • Well we could think of Fire as ‘burning the trash’? But actually fire Renews the habitat! Often people don’t recognize how fire can renew, or restore! In other words to ‘maintain’ a type of habitat you need regular fire. Otherwise that habitat disappears along with the plants and animals that Prefer that Habitat.

          That is what I was referring to.

  12. This pasThis past weekend, I was knelling in a patch of prairie using a dandelion weeder to remove red clover. I was thinking about how grazing damaged this prairie allowing red clover and smooth brome to invade. While I worked, I could hear a tractor in a nearby crop field. A John Deere Sprayer drove down the gravel road along which I had parked my car. All of this made me think that what J. Sterling Morton had said, mostly became true.

  13. Hi Chris-
    I continue to appreciate your interest and dedication to prairie and prairie species.

    The problem is bigger, however, than your post has framed it; the problem is about the estrangement of humans from their natural, supportive context. Aldo Leopold, a lover of prairies AND forests worked his entire lifetime to understand and place humans in a satisfactory relationship with their environment. His “Land Ethic” is the result of that intellectual journey. Leopold understood a farmer’s role and wondered and chided farmers about loss of soil, bio-diversity, animals, prairie AND trees. Interestingly, there is no place better than Nebraska to view and understand the conundrum of prairie vs. forest and grass/forbs versus trees as a battle in the war of man versus Nature. Narrow bands of forest have since the retreat of last glaciers penetrated prairie along streams and swales, They sometimes advanced and and sometimes waned due to drought and fire. Humans (Native Americans) were also part of that interaction as they purposefully (or accidentally) burned the landscape.

    To castigate J. Sterling Morton for his interest in trees and development of the Great Plains, i think, is a bit of revisionist history. It is us looking back and placing our current views and understandings and ecological concerns onto someone who was simply following a human bent toward the agency of trees. Remember, it was only in 1872 (the Year Arbor Day was founded) that John Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature became available when translated from Italian. That book’s concern was forest, not prairie. It struct a chord in Nebraska’s settlers because they needed trees for shelter, warmth, wind protection and beauty. Note, even Native Americans lived and camped in the wooded and watered valleys and merely hunted on the intervening prairies. Humans have a genetic and evolutionary predisposition for the company of trees. One might even say that we are aesthetically inclined to favor tree-studded habitats.

    All of these ideas and many more about Nebraska’s unique environment are covered in my recent book, Reading the Nebraska Landscape: An Ecological Aesthetic which is available from Amazon.com

    • While reading Aldo Leopold’s “The Land Ethic” it’s easy to imagine just how exceptionally far ahead of his time he really must have been. And what’s really worrying is that he’s still miles ahead of our time.

  14. I’ll quote Morton’s despicable thoughts on Native Americans. I don’t think this should be left out. Not enough people understand the depth of hatred they’ve faced, and therefore don’t realize how it impacts them today:

    “The American Indian, in whom there are none of the elements of thrift, held a tenancty [sic] upon these fertile plains for centuries, but there was neither labor in his arm nor progression in his spirit. He was an unworthy occupant of so goodly a land and he has been supplanted. He is gone, and his race is fast becoming extinct-the world is too old for its aborigines. Their destiny is completed; they are journeying to their fate; they must die, and a few years hence only be known through their history as it was recorded by the Anglo-Saxon while he pushed them before him in his onward tread.”

    Morton was an advocate of genocide.

    • We are the product of our biology and history. We are all not much different than the common crow.

      Not only can crows recognize faces, the knowledge gets passed down from generation to generation. Crow that were not even born when trapping occurred still sound alarm when the mask is worn (NOVA PBS Special).
      I think about how Dat was running and had the police called on him. Dat superficially looks like a Native American. I must wonder if seeing Dat running triggered fear passed down through generations of white farmers from when Native Americans were attacking settlers.
      During settlement bad things happened on both sides. However, the First Peoples received many times the punishment of what had been done to white settlers encroaching on their territories. Often, the people punished were not even the ones who were involved in attacks.
      In contrast, when I think of Native Americans the images of service member fighting in WWII comes to mind. There is a decorated history of Native Americans fighting in our military. I must wonder if the reason they fought so bravely in WWII was because they themselves had once faced genocide.

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