Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


One method proposed for conquering the arid frontier in the Great Plains was tree planting. Settlers brought with them plant-climate theories whose origins ultimately can be traced to ancient Greece. A belief in trees having a modifying effect on dry lands had become widespread in Europe by the time of Columbus. When European American farmers faced the Great Plains, some optimistically believed that tree planting would turn the Great American Desert into a garden.

Supportive arguments appeared in writings of travelers such as Frederick Olmsted and Ferdinand Hayden as early as the 1850s. It was during the 1870–90 period, however, that the myth of using trees to influence the climate and over a period of years increase the rainfall and improve conditions for agriculture received the most attention. Some influential sponsors of this theory were members of the newly created U.S. Forest Service. The first three chiefs, F. B. Hough, N. H. Egleston, and B. E. Fernow, all authored articles endorsing the benefits of tree planting. Fernow proposed that nature, if left to itself, would forest almost the entire world. Support came from the dean of the Industrial College, Charles E. Bessey, and Agricultural College professor Harvey Culbertson at the University of Nebraska. Bessey told the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture in 1886 that the Plains were dry because they were treeless and advocated tree planting to change this condition. To prove his point, Bessey, with the aid of Fernow, planted the only U.S. man-made national forest (Halsey) in the Sandhills of Nebraska, a forest, it might be added, that has hardly thrived.

State governments recognized the need to encourage tree planting both to attract immigrants and to replace the trees that had been cut by the railroads and military. In 1873 the federal government officially encouraged tree planting with the Timber Culture Act, which required a settler to plant trees on (initially) forty acres of a quarter section in order to secure patent to the land. Introduced by Nebraska senator Phineas W. Hitchcock, the bill carried the argument that growth of timber would not only provide wood but also influence the climate.

New settlers, including Rev. C. S. Harrison, upheld the tree-planting theory. Reverend Harrison founded the town of Arborville, Nebraska, in 1871 and established a tree nursery. He wrote in 1873 that the "desert" would soon be forested to the base of the Rocky Mountains. J. Sterling Morton, Nebraska's secretary of agriculture, continued the crusade of tree planting by launching Arbor Day in 1872. As a result, Nebraska was known as the Tree Planting State long before it became the Cornhusker State. Railroads also supported the benefits of tree planting in order to promote their land sales to prospective settlers.

Tree planting in the Great Plains continued to be supported by many individuals and groups even after the droughts of the 1890s dispelled notions of an improved climate linked to tree planting. Claims, however, became more realistic. It was recognized that trees could have a positive effect on microscale climate, and the beneficial qualities of shelterbelts and windbreaks on the Plains have continued to be emphasized.

See also POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT: Morton, J. Sterling.

M. Jean Ferrill Northern Michigan University

Bessey, C. "The Grasses and Forage Plants of Nebraska." In Annual Report of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, 1886. Lincoln: Nebraska State Journal: 208–9.

Elliott, R. S. "Climate of Kansas." In Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1870. Washington DC: 472–74.

Fernow, B. E. "Forest Planting on the Plains." In Annual Report of the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, 1890. Lincoln: Nebraska State Journal: 140.

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