With varying weather extremes affecting the forestry landscape, the North Platte Natural Resources District (NRD) in Scottsbluff, Neb., is working diversity and restoration into its 17 communities through the Free Trees for Fall Planting program.
The district, in partnership with the Nebraska Forest Service and the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum’s Trees for Nebraska Towns, has successfully planted 650 trees in the past seven years, thanks to funding from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.
“We deal with extremes on the weather side, and we are fighting a bit of an uphill battle with what Mother Nature naturally wants on our landscape, so that is part of the balancing act we play,” District Resource Conservation Coordinator Todd Filipi said. “But trees and shrubs can serve many different purposes with our communities along with generally being aesthetically pleasing.”
Community organizations and volunteer groups can apply for the Free Trees for Planting program as an upcoming service project, which must include a public outreach component. Groups receive up to ten trees each. In 2019, 502 trees were distributed statewide through the program.
Program participation aims to slow or stop the state’s community forest decline and provide awareness and appreciation for conservation. As interest and demand increases annually, Filipi believes the program is having a significant impact.
“We definitely have a lot of interested people who value the benefits of trees,” he said. “Often, the biggest challenge is convincing the community leaders that the benefits of the trees far outweigh the time spent managing the trees after planting.”
While many of the projects take place in urban areas, the conservation district’s sandy soils and farm and rangelands provide challenges in selecting the types of trees and planting locations to provide the most benefit. The district helps to ensure trees are planted properly and that landowners know how to follow up with care and pruning to improve the 50-70 percent annual survival rate.
As part of the program, the Forest Service promotes species diversity, so the district is working with communities on trying maples, sycamores, gingko trees and nut trees, as well as with some different varieties of the more locally recognized oak, hackberry, honey locust and elm. In addition to positively affecting state forest life, saving energy and benefiting the community, the efforts provide local residents with examples of alternative species to further diversify their properties.
“This program has no cost to them so they’re more apt to try things they aren’t used to or aren’t aware of,” Filipi said. “Trees and shrubs have been a huge tool we have used to reduce erosion on many fronts and one that has been huge for our soil health over the years.”
The district is also mindful of tree planting projects that maintain and sustain wildlife, so there is a concentrated effort on finding native plant sources and trees and shrubs that have adapted to Nebraska conditions.
Other organizations involved include the Boy Scouts, FFA and 4-H groups.
“It’s great to get that younger generation out and planting,” Filipi said. “They get a buy in to the community and give back something that they can see for a lifetime.”