(Posted 9/17) Control of nonnative eastern red cedar is becoming an increasingly popular topic throughout grasslands in Nebraska. The Sandhills are Nebraska’s largest intact landscape and invasion by eastern red cedar is one of the chief ecological threats to this area. Each place a red cedar tree grows is one less spot for grassland birds to nest, pollinator habitat to grow, or livestock grazing to occur. To combat the problem, fire and intensive mechanical removal are needed to restore the natural order of this vast grassland that was once maintained by regular prairie blazes.
The Rainwater Basin Joint Venture, Sandhills Task Force, and U. S. Forest Service have taken advantage of a unique opportunity to control eastern red cedar in and around the Nebraska National Forest at Halsey. A grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has provided funding to support a Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership, wherein resources from the Nebraska National Forests and Grasslands’ Bessey Ranger District are allowed to participate in prescribed burning activities not only on, but also adjacent to, National Forest lands.
On the ground, this means the most efficient delivery of prescribed burning, with professional burn crews working side-by-side with landowners and local volunteer fire departments (VFDs). A major benefit of the partnership has been the elevated level of training and comfort landowners have with their own prescribed fire activities. Since the first burn through the partnership was conducted on private lands this past spring, area VFDs have already conducted another independent prescribed fire to control red cedar. The knowledge gained from their first prescribed fire was also used to help suppress a wildfire on public land. These activities demonstrate clear benefits to both public and private lands and provide positive impacts to both wildlife and ranching.
As comfort with burning in the Sandhills has gained traction, a new management approach is being adopted. Some landowners have recognized prescribed fire as the most efficient way to maintain their grassland in the long-term and are eager to apply it to other parts of their ranch where red cedar is a problem. Traditional paradigms are also being challenged with the reintegration of burning. For example, there is a common perception that effective burning means long periods of rest from grazing, and that the two practices are not compatible in the same season. While it’s true that developing a decent-sized fuel load is necessary to effectively kill larger red cedars, the sacrifice of grazing potential to build up the small fuel load needed to eradicate seedlings and young trees is less than one might think. Likewise, area ranchers have noted that they can generally continue grazing within the same growing season as they burned.
These conservation practices also benefit a broad public, including grazing permit holders, sportsmen, and wildlife enthusiasts. On public lands, thousands of acres of grassland have been treated already and pronghorn and grassland birds have been observed in habitats that were previously too encroached by red cedar to provide them usable habitat.
A recent tour of burned areas was hosted at the Bessey Ranger District, with landowners and resource professionals presenting information about burning. The chief topic was the array of programs available to help restore fire as a natural process to eliminate red cedar encroachment, in which the Flagship Prescribed Fire Partnership can play a major role. Future plans for the Partnership include more burning and mechanical removal of eastern red cedar. Members recognize that this process is akin to a marathon and will take long-term commitment to affect a measurable change. This slow buildup of experience and accomplishments hopefully will bring a level of comfort about prescribed burning to the Sandhills, as well as turn the corner on red cedar encroachment within Nebraska’s largest grassland.