Nebraska's Century-Old Tree Nursery Supports Region's Forests

Bessey Nursery Manager Richard Gilbert holds up a tree seedling growing in a greenhouse. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
A row of container trees in one of the greenhouses at Bessey Nursery. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
From a short distance, the rows of seedlings look like one giant lawn. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Richard Gilbert walking through an outdoor shadehouse. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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September 6, 2017 - 6:45am

The Bessey Nursery near Halsey in the Nebraska Sandhills is the oldest federal tree nursery in the country. In today’s story, we get a tour and learn why this small operation is so important for the region’s forests.


Every year, foresters from Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska collect cones from trees like pines, spruce, and Douglas fir, and send them to the Bessey Nursery in central Nebraska. Inside a large building on a fall day, fans blow over rows and rows of burlap bags. Nursery Manager Richard Gilbert reaches into one.

“This is Douglas fir, and as you can see, these cones are starting to open. So you can see the seed right down in there,” he said, pointing down between the cone’s bracts, or woody leaves, to reveal a small seed. Gilbert’s team takes all these cones, heats them up and dries them out, which opens them to release the seeds.

Inside the seed bank at the nursery, where seeds are packaged and stored anywhere from months to years until they're needed to grow new seedlings.

(Photos by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

He leads the way into the nursery’s seed bank, where seeds about the size you’d see in an apple sit perched on screens.

“The Forest Service, our focus is timber species,” Gilbert says. “So we store in the seed bank four main species: we've got Engelmann spruce, we've got ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine.”

The seeds are collected, cleaned, labeled and stored according to the specific location where they were collected. Gilbert picks up a box and reads the label.

“This seed lot is ponderosa pine, 03 is the forest, which is Black Hills National Forest, 621 is the seed zone. 066 is 6,600 foot elevation, so that's the midpoint elevation, and 15 was the year it was collected, so 2015, or when the cones were collected,” he said.

That information’s important because Bessey Nursery is the seed bank for region two of the Forest Service. That means they keep these seeds safe until a ranger district needs trees—at which point Bessey grows seedlings for them to plant back in the specific part of that forest.

“If they have a natural catastrophe such as a wildfire, huge blowdown event, bark beetle, we are that backup,” Gilbert said.

To slow down the seeds’ metabolism, many of them are kept in a large walk-in freezer, at nine degrees Fahrenheit.

“Alright, are you ready to be cold?” Gilbert asks as he opens the large freezer door. “We can't get stuck in here, you're totally safe,” he added with a laugh.

Inside the freezing space sit rows of shelves of seed boxes, going all the way back to 1963. In total, they keep about 14,000 pounds of seed on site. Gilbert says they can store seeds for years, but the seed’s growth potential starts to drop off after a couple decades.

Back out in the warmth of the sun, Gilbert leads the way into one of several greenhouses where they turn these seeds into trees. Light shines down through the glass ceiling as fans and irrigation booms move overhead. Rows and rows of pine seedlings a few inches tall grow from Styrofoam planters, looking like one large grassy lawn.

“This is all Black Hills Ponderosa pine,” Gilbert said, sweeping his arm across the planters. “This is going to be returned to areas that were burned up and the trees are not regenerating at all. So we're producing the seedlings for them. We produce 150,000 ponderosa pine every year just for the Black Hills National Forest.”

When he started working here, Gilbert said he initially didn’t think too much about where the seeds came from. But growing them, he said differences like size and disease-resistance become apparent, even between the same kind of pine collected from different forests and different elevations.

The nursery also grows many seedlings outside in woodhouses or shadehouses or on its 46 acres of irrigated ground.

(Photos by Ariana Brocious, NET News)

“It is really amazing, all of the genetic differences and the phenotypes that you see,” he said.

In addition to the four main timber species, Gilbert’s team grows a variety of other species at the nursery, including oaks, maple, sumac, buffalo berry, mountain mahogany, common juniper, spruce, eastern red cedar, rocky mountain juniper… the list goes on.

And it’s not just trees, either—they grow shrubs, forbs and grasses too. Altogether, Bessey Nursery works year-round to grow around 60 different species in the field and anywhere from four to 18 in the greenhouses.

Charles E. Bessey started the nursery a century ago to grow trees for the brand-new national forest being planted in the surrounding Sandhills. Gilbert said even though not many trees grow naturally in the Sandhills, the area is actually a great place to grow seedlings.

“With wonderful sand, easy access to water and trees were intended to be planted right here on the forest, this is an absolutely fantastic location.” And that continues to be true today, he added, “because we ship trees to Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado.”

The nursery no longer grows seedlings to plant in the nearby forest. But Bessey Nursery produces around 2 million seedlings every year for forests and state agencies around the region, helping reforest after fires or beetle kill. Gilbert said that’s a testament to Bessey’s vision.

“The dream for Charles E. Bessey is very, very successful. This nursery's still here. We're the oldest federal tree nursery and it's no doubt that it's a very successful operation,” he said.

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