Skip to main content

Farms and Forests: Quantifying the Tree Resource in the Great Plains

In this planned community in North Dakota, eight-row windbreaks provide privacy and maximum protection.. Photo by Dacia Meneguzzo, USDA Forest Service

Between 1935 and 1942, the Prairie States Forestry Project orchestrated the planting of more than 220 million trees in 33,000 windbreaks totaling more than 18,000 miles in a swath stretching from North Dakota to Texas. Today, scientists with the Northern Research Station's Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) Program are helping establish the extent and location of windbreaks in the Great Plains.

Forests in the Great Plains are not like traditional forests. Their placement is often intended to provide an ecological service, such as conserving soil, protecting crops, livestock and humans, or enhancing water quality. They occur in patterns that range from scattered trees in a pasture to neat rows along a field boundary or around a farmstead. While these tree features often fail to meet the definition of "forest" employed by national inventory programs, they are viewed as such by the region's land managers. Windbreaks are a prime example; they are critically important yet little information describing their extent and location is available in formats (e.g., maps) that are useful for resource professionals and decision-makers. Researchers with the Northern Research Station's Forest Inventory and Analysis unit collaborated with the USDA National Agroforestry Center to develop an operational land cover mapping process that uses 1-meter aerial photography. The availability of such fine-scale information over large geographic areas, such as a state, delivers detailed spatial information about trees in agroecosystems to land managers and decision-makers. The data are being used by foresters and natural resource professionals in the Great Plains to target areas where windbreak renovation or installation would help farmers conserve topsoil. This endeavor is the first of its kind in the region and provides information at a new scale that is appropriate for inventory, monitoring, and decision-making related to nontraditional forests.