Northwest Nebraska farmers and ranchers have realized a valuable resource over the past decade: its forests.

With the steady demand for wood products in the United States, the ponderosa pine timber that flourishes in the Pine Ridge is selling for the highest prices ever. This is good news, in an era of low agricultural commodity prices.

"We can see a depressed farm industry, but construction continues independent of the agricultural industry. This offers farmers a diversification of incomes," said Doak Nickerson, University of Nebraska Forest Service forester, at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff. "We are glad farmers and ranchers can have that opportunity."

Nickerson said trees owned by the Nebraska Board of Educational Lands and Funds sold for $14.10 at ton, at a September, 1999, competitive bid timber sale. This is the highest bid price ever received by the NU Forest Service, which administers school land timber sales in the Panhandle. Trees from the sale will be processed at Pope and Talbot sawmill, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, with the lumber used mainly for construction.

Selectively harvesting (not clear cutting) trees from the 260-acre tract of timberland, near Chadron, will yield an estimated 750,000 board feet of saw logs and reap $85,000, or $325 per acre of revenue for the state board of education, Nickerson said. By the time these trees are processed and the logs hauled to the sawmill for lumber manufacturing , this renewable forest will have generated more than $250,000 in economic benefits to the local community, he said.

This high bid compares to about $10 per ton sold from private lands. About two-thirds of the pine ridge forest is privately owned. When tree sales started in the region about 10 years ago, landowner received about $3 per ton. For every dollar of revenue that goes to the farmer or rancher for tree sales, Nickerson said, $1 goes to the local logger and $1 goes to the truck driver in the community.

Many environmental benefits also result from selective timber harvesting, said the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources forester. Thinning the forest significantly reduces the danger of forest fires, he added. Thus, catastrophic wildfires similar to the 1989 Fort Robinson fire may be prevented. Opening up the stagnated timber stands by removing mature or diseased trees allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, thereby releasing the shade-straved grasses growing under the forest canopy and improving forage production for livestock. The many remaining young- to middle-age trees also will have more space to grow and mature for a future timber crop and income.

"I see it as a win-win situation. May people have a concern about cutting down trees, he said. "That is based on a lot of false information that is not science-based. We feel timber harvesting in the Pine Ridge, with what we know today about good stewardship, will help the situation."

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