Each year, as the current project season begins to wind down in late summer, Wilderness Volunteers begins to receive dozens upon dozens of project proposals from all across the United States to be considered for the following project season. One of the more unique and compelling project proposals received came from the Bessey Ranger District of the Nebraska National Forests and Grassland. For orientation, this district or “unit” is positioned 270 miles northwest of Omaha and 350 miles northeast of Denver. It consists of 90,000 acres and roughly 63% of the Nebraska National Forest and Grassland area. The Bessey Unit is surrounded by the Nebraska Sandhills, a region that is one of the largest contiguous and least-disturbed prairies in all of the U.S. and is home to a wide variety of wildlife. The Bessey Unit is also where you’ll find the largest hand-planted forest in the Western Hemisphere.

If you aren’t very familiar with the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, you aren’t alone. The land now under the management of Nebraska National Forest and Grasslands was the traditional homeland of numerous Tribes including the Pawnee, Lakota, and Cheyenne Peoples. These Tribes were the original stewards of the land, the plants, the animals, and the waters of the region.

What began as an “experiment” in 1902 by the University of Nebraska botany professor Charles E. Bessey hoped to offset a predicted timber shortage attributed to the growing need for wood products, unregulated harvest, and large wildfires. Bessey wanted to see if he could create forests in the treeless areas of the Great Plains, convincing President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside two sections of treeless Nebraska sandhills as forest reserves (with the help of the first Forest Service Chief Gifford Pinchot). This experiment resulted in a 20,000-acre forest, the largest human-planted forest in the Western Hemisphere. Today the forest’s nursery supplies 2.5 to 3 million seedlings per year, and the Bessey Tree Nursery is listed on the National Register of Historic Places

By the consolidation of three smaller forests, the Nebraska National Forest was established on November 15, 1907. A band of the national grasslands and the native ponderosa pine forest of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge area were added to the system in the 1950s. Over 1 million acres are managed by the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands, scattered across a large swatch extending from central Nebraska west to the northern Panhandle, into southwestern South Dakota, and east to the state’s center.

The Bessey Unit’s project proposal is a call for help to rebuild their pollinator garden that was lost in the Bovee Fire that started in early October of 2022. In speaking with Emily, a Recreation Management Specialist for the Bessey Ranger District, she explained that the Scott Lookout Tower and the pollinator garden are symbolic of the Bessey Ranger District and the Sandhills community. The Scott Fire Tower was built in 1944, renovated in 2011, and was the only working fire tower left in Nebraska. 50 feet up on the deck of the tower, views stretched up to 10 miles out to the Dismal River.

Emily says that the pollinator garden was originally established on May 1, 2021, as a project that remembered a special life. With the help of the organization Pheasants Forever, this special project was completed with 63 volunteers, including 12 youth, planting 850 plants to attract native pollinators. This garden provides countless benefits to the ecosystem and community, including enjoyment and education opportunities, food security, and ecosystem stability. The value of the volunteer efforts and donated plants surpassed $9000 upon completion of the pollinator garden. 

Catastrophe struck in early October of 2022 during the Bovee Fire that ultimately effected over 18,000 acres of land, including areas of hand-planted forest. The fire burned the local 4-H camp (within the Forest boundary) which was the backdrop for many community events like prom and even state events. The fire also burned the Scott Lookout Tower, the cabin that sat on top, and the stairs down to its metal frame, taking the pollinator garden along with it.

Over one and half years later, the Bessey Ranger District is still trying its best to rebuild despite staffing issues, budgeting, its rural location, and higher priority projects. They’ve held native grass planting events that have been met and tracked with success, and our planned project will take the lead on rebuilding the pollinator garden to inspire the community and enhance this recreational and educational space for all. The planned project consists of replacing the old railroad tie retaining wall with block, replanting the garden, clearing debris from the trail, laying down erosion fabric on highly erodible portions of the trail, and finally mulching the trail over four working days. This is a front country project, with volunteers tent or car camping in a designated campground (likely the Bessey Recreation Complex). 

During the free day for the project, Emily suggests hiking or bird watching within the unit as her favorite activity. With advanced coordination with the USFS, it may be possible to tour the Bessey Nursery, or you can visit the Middle Loup River or the Bessey OHV Trail System. If you’re up for a small road trip, there are several museums to take in for historical buffs (Cody Park Railroad Museum, Golden Spike Tower, and local county museums). Depending on your route in or out, it is possible to visit the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument, an attraction that talks about Nebraska’s history. 

If you’re interested in joining this project and making a difference in this community, please visit the Nebraska National Forest project page or contact Wilderness Volunteers (info@wildernressvolunteers.org) for more information. We still have spots left and we’d love for you to join us and the Bessey Ranger District in rebuilding their pollinator garden.