A slice of land on the Niobrara River in Cherry County could be a living laboratory on Nebraska woodlands and grasslands.
The 460-acre site southwest of Valentine would be the state's first Forestry and Wildlife Management Area. The Nebraska Forest Service and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission would manage the land to demonstrate how the Niobrara forests and grasslands could be operated for the maximized benefit of ranchers, hunters, the timber industry and others — all while dampening the chances of a wildfire.
The site is in a region that has been increasingly plagued by wildfires in recent years, said Scott Josiah of Lincoln, state forester and director of the Nebraska Forest Service.
“The entire Niobrara Valley is dense with forest and way overcrowded,” he said.
Josiah said the new forestry and wildlife area is big enough to be actively used for education.
“We would have field days on how to manage for elk or turkey,” he said. “And we would show how to reduce the fuel load in the forest to reduce the risk of severe wildland fire.”
Last year, Nebraska experienced its worst wildfire season on record. Nearly 1,600 wildfires burned more than 500,000 acres. Sixty-five structures were lost. Firefighting costs hit $12 million.
Recent years of higher temperatures, intense drought, increased forest fuel loads and the spread of eastern redcedar — by 38,000 new acres a year statewide — have created an explosive potential for megafires in the Niobrara Valley and other areas of Nebraska, Josiah said.
Last July, three wildfires along the Niobrara east of Valentine, Neb., burned more than 76,000 acres over 10 days. More than 100 volunteer fire departments responded.
The owner of the proposed forestry and wildlife area is selling the property to see it protected from development and preserved in its natural state, officials said. The tract is nine miles south of Nenzel, Neb., and less than a mile north of McKelvie National Forest. The parcel contains more than two miles of Niobrara frontage and straddles the river in places.
The property is not adjacent to the Niobrara National Scenic River. The popular canoeing and tubing stretch of the Niobrara is about 35 miles downstream.
Josiah said the Nenzel-area property would be an ideal demonstration area for woodland and grassland management because most cattle ranchers up and down the valley have similar terrain and trees on their properties.
The tract features mostly grassland and meadows on the north side of the river. The south parcel includes hardwoods, cottonwoods and willows on the river bottom. Pines and invasive cedars crowd the bluff slopes.
Josiah said the owner of the proposed forestry and wildlife area has been an extraordinary steward of the property for 20 years. The diverse habitats host song birds, wild turkey and deer. An elk herd winters on the land.
The property would be purchased at appraised value, officials said. Game and Parks will continue to pay all taxes on the property.
Funds for the tract would come from a first-ever $500,000 grant to the Nebraska Forest Service from the U.S. Forest Legacy Program. The Nebraska Environmental Trust would provide a $240,000 grant. The National Wild Turkey Federation also is contributing money.
The Game and Parks Commission would own the tract and operate it as one of its 283 wildlife management areas. One of them, the 137-acre Anderson Bridge Wildlife Management Area, is five miles downstream from the proposed new site.
Wildlife management areas are open for fishing, seasonal hunting and trapping and other activities. The areas generally are acquired, developed and maintained by funds from hunting and fishing permits and taxes on outdoor equipment. Access is free.
Josiah said the State Forest Service would develop a plan to protect the health, vigor and economic vitality of the forest. Practices could include removing trees to reduce wildfire fuels, improving wildlife habitat and grazing cattle. Game and Parks would maintain fences, improve wildlife habitat and join in work to reduce fire risk to surrounding properties.
A public hearing on the plan was held in Valentine last week.
The Environmental Trust board is scheduled to discuss and vote on the project at its July 19 meeting in Holdrege, Neb. Game and Parks commissioners are expected to consider the project at their July 26 meeting in Lincoln.
Nebraska forest facts
1.57 million Acres of forest land in Nebraska.
88% Percentage of state’s forest land owned by private landowners.
1.1 million Acres of Nebraska’s forest land (94 percent) capable of producing commercial timber. This is nearly twice Nebraska’s timberland acreage in 1984.
1.8 billion Estimated volume of all live trees on Nebraska timberland in cubic feet (38 million dry tons).
1.8 million Net tons of wood produced each year.
5.7 million Cubic feet (91,000 tons) of industrial roundwood harvested from Nebraska forests in 2000; about 95 percent of this lumber was sawlogs. Of this, 70 percent was processed at Nebraska sawmills.
89% Wood residue generated in Nebraska’s sawmills used for products such as specialty boards, animal bedding, litter, mulch and industrial fuel.
$286 million Annual economic output from the forest products industry.
2,200 People employed in the forest products industry.
13,000 Miles of farmstead and acreage windbreaks that save millions in increased crop yields and soil and water protection.
500,000 Acres burned in the 2012 wildfires, the largest on record.
38,000 New acres of eastern redcedar forest every year.
300,000 Tons of eastern redcedar biomass added to forests each year.
$13.5 million Potential revenue from eastern redcedar utilized as biofuel.
48,000 Number of pines and spruces at risk of dying from drought following a hot, dry 2012.
Source: Nebraska Forest Service