History & Culture


A man plowing rows at Bessey Nursery in the early 20th centruyThe Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands began in 1902 as an experiment. University of Nebraska botany professor Dr. Charles E. Bessey, with the assistance of Gifford Pinchot, first Forest Service Chief, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside two treeless tracts of Nebraska sandhills as “forest reserves." Dr. Bessey’s intent was to eventually produce wood products, which would help to offset what some thought would be a national timber shortage due to large fires, unregulated harvest, and the country’s growing appetite for wood products. Thus, began a pioneering effort to produce trees and plant them in what is now the largest human-made forest in the United States.

Portrait of Charles E. BesseyThough the sandhills forest never met Bessey’s vision of becoming a timber producing forest, it is important for its wildlife, aesthetic and recreational values, and as a living monument to that vision. Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery, the oldest federal nursery, pioneered the large-scale production of tree seedlings and still produces 2.5 to 3 million per year for distribution to national forests, and state, and tribal agencies in the Great Plains and West. 

The national grasslands and the native ponderosa pine forest of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge area were added to the National Forest System in the 1950’s. The nearly 1.1 million acres administered by the Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands Supervisor are scattered across a large arc extending from central Nebraska west to the northern Panhandle, into southwestern South Dakota and on east to the state’s center.

There are three ecosystems that represent a cross section of the northern Great Plains. Those include, the National Grasslands, Buffalo Gap, and Fort Pierre (pronounced  “peer”), in South Dakota, as well as the Oglala, which along with two National Forests, the Nebraska and Samuel R. McKelvie, reside in Nebraska. 

Man at Bessey Nursery with horse in the early 20th centuryThe Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands allow for a very diverse mixture of wildlife and vegetation. The diversity includes the mixed grass prairies of the Buffalo Gap, Fort Pierre and Oglala National Grasslands with prairie grouse, prairie dogs, and pronghorns. The native ponderosa pine forest (Pine Ridge Ranger District) along the Pine Ridge escarpment with elk, deer and wild turkey add to the ecosystem mix. Hand-planted forests (Bessey Ranger District and Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest) within the Sandhills grasslands with their combined grassland and forest wildlife species are unique to the National Forest System. Charles E. Bessey Nursery, the nation’s oldest federal tree nursery, rounds out this interesting and challenging combination known as the Nebraska National Forests & Grasslands.

Photos from top to bottom:
A man plowing rows at Bessey Nursery in the early 20th century.
Portrait of Charles E. Bessey.
Man at Bessey Nursery with horse in the early 20th century.
Cattle foraging at Bessey during 1949 blizzard.

Cattle foraging at Bessey during 1949 blizzard