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The Tree Planters State

Photos by Curt Arens view of the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, as viewed from the Scott Lookout Tower
TREETOP VIEW: The top view of the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey, as seen from the Scott Lookout Tower that was built as a USDA Forest Service observation tower in 1944. Renovated in 2011, visitors can get a bird’s-eye view from the observation deck.
The Cornhusker State is fitting, but Nebraska earned its 1895 nickname by honoring its tree planting roots.

Nebraska has had a lot of nicknames in the past 155 years since becoming a state, and before that as a territory. Some of those names have been less than complimentary, like the unofficial “Bug-eaters State” nickname derived from the grasshopper infestations of the 1870s.

Putting an end to the bug-eater nonsense, the Nebraska Legislature passed a resolution in 1895 declaring Nebraska as the “Tree Planters State,” with a nod to the fact that Arbor Day, now celebrated on the last Friday of April, was founded in Nebraska, and tree claims garnered through the Timber Culture Act were so popular.

That name stuck until 1945 when it was officially switched to the “Cornhusker State” to boost University of Nebraska athletic teams.

I love the cornhusker moniker, because Nebraska farmers have lived up to the label. However, we also rightfully earned the Tree Planters State designation. On that first Arbor Day in 1872, more than 1 million trees were planted across the state.

From the hand-planted Nebraska National Forest near Halsey to the hundreds of miles of windbreaks established through the Prairie States Forestry Project in the New Deal years and beyond, you start to understand how much Nebraskans love trees.

Home of Arbor Day

For a Plains state, with native trees often confined to river and stream valleys, we love our woodlands and orchards, our lone cottonwood trees in a Sandhills pasture, and our beautiful Pine Ridge. We love our ponderosa pines in the Niobrara River valley, our chokecherry bushes along creek bottoms, our Christmas tree and tree nursery farms, and our small black walnut plantations.

Even the invasive eastern red cedar, which has been a mainstay tree in shelterbelts, has a place in our landscape, and its lumber has made its way into home-crafted furnishings.

Just as J. Sterling Morton — founder of Arbor Day — and his family brought their love of orchards and trees to the territory when they arrived in 1854, Nebraskans, including farmers and ranchers, continue to plant conservation trees by the hundreds of thousands each year.

Tree planting federal legislation like the Timber Culture Act of 1873, the Clark-McNary Act of 1924, and the New Deal shelterbelt programs were all warmly participated in by Nebraskans.

Tree hero

One of Nebraska’s modern tree planting heroes, Dan “the Tree Man” Gillespie, took seeds collected from oak trees on his own farm, along with potting soil and grow boxes, into fourth through sixth grade classrooms in his hometown of Battle Creek for more than 30 years.

Students loved the hands-on planting experiences coordinated by Gillespie, and those classroom visits probably accounted for about 3,000 trees being planted over the years. We printed a story about the new Dan Gillespie Soil Health Fund being developed through the Nebraska Community Foundation by his family in our February issue of Nebraska Farmer.

Dan Gillespie, Battle Creek, talking soil health at the UNL Haskell Ag Lab farm and family field day

TREE HERO: Dan Gillespie of Battle Creek, Neb., pictured here talking about soil health at the UNL Haskell Ag Lab farm and family field day, died Feb. 13. Gillespie, like so many Nebraskans over the years, made tree planting a lifelong passion on his farm and shared that passion with students in his hometown.

This fund is aimed at promoting, encouraging and supporting farmers for education and implementation of practices improving soil health. We are saddened to report that Gillespie, who had retired from his USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services no-till specialist position in 2020 and was diagnosed with ALS, a terminal neurodegenerative disease, died Feb. 13.

Perhaps Morton himself portrayed his own tree planting mission and the lifelong passion of folks like Gillespie and others best when he wrote, “The cultivation of trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in man, and for one, I wish to see it become universal.”

We would expect Nebraska tree planters to continue to carry out this sentiment, and the mission conveyed by Gillespie and so many others over the years, on this upcoming Arbor Day, Apr. 29.

With comments or questions, email curtis.arens@farmprogress.com.

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