Nebraska's Pine Ridge is a vanishing landscape.
Last year's extraordinary wildfires compounded 50 years of losses among ponderosa pines in northwest Nebraska. Now the largest population of the stately pine no longer resides in the Pine Ridge, according to the Nebraska Forest Service.
Instead, most are found in the Niobrara River Valley, said Doak Nickerson, district forester for the Nebraska Forest Service.
“What pictures we have of the Pine Ridge with a beautiful pine forest draped over top these beautiful hills — those pictures might be historic if we don't turn this ship around,” Nickerson said. “In the end, we'll probably have to take the word 'pine' out of Pine Ridge and just call it the Ridge.”
The Pine Ridge is unique in Nebraska because it combines two things the rest of the state largely lacks — forests and plenty of public land for families to camp, hike, bike, fish and otherwise enjoy the outdoors.
Less than 2 percent of Nebraska is forested, and the relatively cool, damp canyons of the Pine Ridge and the Niobrara River Valley provide a climate that allows ponderosa pines to grow, Nickerson said.
Also, the bulk of Nebraska's public land is concentrated in the northwestern corner of the state because that's where the federal and state governments own large tracts. Otherwise, about 97 percent of the state is in private hands.
“It's Nebraska's last vestiges of the Rocky Mountains,” Nickerson said of pine forests. The peaks along the ridge may not rise very high, but the terrain is rugged and has been emerald.
Before the 1950s, ponderosa pines blanketed about 250,000 acres of the Pine Ridge. In the ensuing decades, fires consumed large swaths. Last year took the biggest toll.
About 77,000 forested acres of the Pine Ridge burned, said Don Westover, fire program leader for the Nebraska Forest Service.
Less than 120,000 acres remain, Nickerson said, and most of that is at risk because it is as fire-prone as the forested areas that have burned.
Wildfires in the Niobrara River Valley did not take as severe a toll.
Pockets of ponderosa pine will endure, and the species won't disappear from the landscape, said John Lee, a forester for the Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands. But the tree is a species that regenerates slowly, so any return of a pine woodland would be a very long time off.
“You'll be looking at generations upon generations of humans before you'll see that area reforested,” Lee said.
In those areas, the fires burned so intensely that the roots of grasses and the crowns of the pines were destroyed, killing off those plants. Areas that did not burn as intensely should bounce back faster.
In the more severely burned areas, the charred landscape will most likely revert to prairie, ecologists say. Weeds will move in first, then grasses and, slowly, pines will take root again in hospitable areas. In the near-term, the rugged terrain is at risk of severe erosion.
“This is a process that is going to take a while, especially if we have another dry year,” said Al Steuter, a Nebraska rancher and longtime grasslands manager. “But it won't be pretty for a while.”
The impact of last year's losses on tourism and recreation has yet to be seen, said Kirk Nelson, western region parks manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
“It's been devastating; it's changed the face of the Pine Ridge,” Nelson said. The good news is that big game will remain in the region, so hunting should largely be unaffected.
Last year's drought and fires were extreme by any measure. The United States experienced its most extensive drought since the Dust Bowl, and Nebraska saw its worst fire year on record.
More than 400,000 acres, about 620 square miles, are known to have burned in Nebraska, Westover said. Prior to last year, the worst fire year was 2000, when 252,247 acres burned, he said.
Jessica Brooks, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in North Platte, said stronger than normal winds, higher than normal temperatures, unusually low humidity and a drier than normal landscape all fed into the mix for intense wildfires.
Nickerson and others say one reason the fires burned so ferociously is that pines and flammable red cedars have overpopulated the ridge, creating a dense abundance of fuel.
An acre that had 30 to 50 ponderosa pines before European settlement might now have 2,000 to 3,000 trees, Nickerson said.
Foresters and ecologists say the trees grew unnaturally dense because of insufficient and unsustained thinning of the trees through logging, controlled burns and grazing.
Hotter, drier weather is another problem, Nickerson said. Since the late 1980s, Nebraska has seen several fires on a scale not previously experienced.
“The size of these megafires is symptomatic of what is changing in front of us,” Nickerson said. “Increasingly hotter, drier summers coupled with mild winters are part of it.”
More frequent drought and more intense wildfire seasons can be expected as the climate warms, said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Stopgap measures that might lessen the impact of future fires in the pine forests — such as logging, controlled burns and increased grazing — have limitations. Still, efforts are under way to do some or all of these things; in areas where those efforts have been made, the fires have tended to be less severe.
The difficulty now is the scale of the problem.
“Nobody has the answer,” said Nelson of the Game and Parks Commission. “Nobody has the money, but they're not sure what they'd do if they had the money.”
Despite the obstacles, all is not lost, said Nickerson of the Nebraska Forest Service.
“There's a way to keep a mosaic of ponderosa pine forest in the Pine Ridge for the future,” he said. “The question Nebraskans need to ask: Is this dwindling pine forest valuable enough for the state to keep? If not, it more than likely will go away.”
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Slow march of the pines
Ponderosa pines could have a hard time re-establishing a woodland in Nebraska. The trees spread slowly across a landscape for several reasons:
» Typically, more than one tree is needed for fertilization, and seedlings rarely sprout far from the parent trees.
» Nebraska is not an area where ponderosa pines thrive. The state is at the southern and eastern edge of the pine's reach. In the Black Hills of South Dakota, the pine regenerates more quickly than it does in Nebraska. Summer is warmer in northwest Nebraska than it is in the Black Hills, not only because Nebraska is farther south, but also because it's at a lower elevation.
» Grass grows more easily in the Pine Ridge than in the Black Hills, so the grass can out-compete pine seedlings.
» Replanting may not be the answer because of the difficult and limited growing conditions for the species in Nebraska. Previous efforts to replant the species in burned areas of northwest Nebraska, notably near Fort Robinson State Park, have been unsuccessful.
Sources: Nebraska Forest Service and Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands