Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

19. Charles E. Bessey and the Nebraska National Forest

Although the Sandhills resemble a desert—with sandy soil, a dry atmosphere, and high summer temperatures—a few determined Nebraskans at the turn of the century were convinced that this grassland could support forests. The result was the making of a wildlife and recreation area that now embraces thousands of acres of timberland. Nebraska National Forest, created in 1907, is the largest human-made forest in the United States and the only such forest in the National Forest system. It represents the Progressive Era’s emphasis on conservation and wise use of natural resources as exemplified at the federal level in the programs designed and implemented by President Theodore Roosevelt and his chief forester and top environmental advisor, Gifford Pinchot.

The driving force behind this project in Nebraska was Charles E. Bessey (1845–1915), a brilliant botanist who has been rightfully called “the father of the Nebraska National Forest.” Born and raised on an Ohio farm, Bessey later enrolled at Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), earning a bachelor of science degree in 1869 and a master’s degree in 1872. As a student, he developed a love for botany, believing that a knowledge of plant life greatly enhanced one’s understanding of the world. For the student of botany, he once said, “nature is not a chaos of unrelated forms, but a most orderly arrangement of related organisms.”

In 1870 Bessey joined the faculty at the Iowa State College of Agriculture (now Iowa State University). He spent the next fifteen years at Iowa State, and his accomplishments there earned him a national reputation. He became the botany editor of American Naturalist, wrote textbooks that were used in high schools and colleges across the

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