Nebraska & Samuel R. McKelvie National Forests
The nearly 1.1 million acres administered by the Nebraska National Forest Supervisor are scattered across a large arc extending from central Nebraska west to the northern Panhandle into southwestern South Dakota and on the east to the state's center. Representing a cross-section of the northern Great Plains ecosystems are three National Grasslands, the Buffalo Gap and Fort Pierre (pronounced peer) in South Dakota, and the Oglala, which along with two National Forests, the Nebraska and Samuel R. Mc Kelvie, is in Nebraska. The Nebraska National Forest began in 1902 as an experiment. University of Nebraska botanist Dr. Charles E Bessey, with the assistance of Gifford Pinchot, first Forest Service Chief, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside two treeless tracts of Nebraska sandhills as forest reserves. Dr. Bessey's intent was to eventually produce wood products, which would encourage settlement in the region. Thus began a pioneering effort to produce trees and plant them in what is now the largest human-made forest in the western hemisphere.
Though the sandhills forest never met Bessey's vision of becoming a timber producing forest, it is important for its wildlife, aesthetic and recreational values and as a living monument to that vision. Charles E Bessey Tree Nursery, the oldest federal nursery, pioneered the large scale production of tree seedlings, and still produces over three million per year for distribution to national forests and states in the Great Plains and West.
The National Grasslands and native ponderosa pine forest of Nebraska's Pine Ridge area were added to the National Forest System in the 1950's.
Across the Forest's units, grass is the primary vegetation type. From the short grass prairies of extreme western South Dakota and Nebraska to the taller more diverse mixed grass prairies of central South Dakota and the Nebraska Sandhills, livestock grazing is the primary commodity use.
Grazing is only one aspect of the multiple use spectrum and is managed so it integrates with other uses and values that depend on that common denominator—grass. There are approximately 400 ranch operations with permits to graze livestock on the Nebraska National Forest and associated units.
The Fort Pierre National Grassland in Central South Dakota and the Bessey Ranger District in Central Nebraska support healthy, huntable populations of greater prairie chicken and sharptailed grouse. Other prairie wildlife species such as pronghorn antelope and blacktailed prairie dogs also call the public lands home. Plans are underway to reintroduce the country's most endangered mammal, the black-footed ferret, into its native habitat on the Buffalo Gap National Grassland and nearby Badlands National Park in southwest South Dakota.
While managing habitat for current wildlife populations is important, the Forest also manages its unusual abundance of paleontological resources—remains of PAST wildlife populations. Toadstool Geologic Park on the Oglala National Grassland is a moonscape of eroded badlands features. Museums around the world contain 30 million year old mammal fossils from this area. The adjacent Buffalo Gap National Grassland reveals fossils of giant marine lizards over twice as old. The Forest is taking an aggressive inventory, education and law enforcement approach to identifying public fossil resources and protecting them for current and future scientific research and public enjoyment.
Recreation Opportunities and Points of Interest
The Bessey Recreation Complex, adjacent to the Charles E Bessey Nursery, is the Forest's premier developed recreation facility. With 33 campsites, a large group shelter, tennis courts, a swimming pool, and fish pond, the Bessey Recreation Complex is a recreation oasis. It is connected to Scott Tower, Nebraska's only functioning fire lookout tower, by a three-mile-long National Recreation Trail. The eight-mile Dismal Trail leads to the small Whitetail Campground, which has a horse corral.
The National Grasslands Visitor Center, in Wall, South Dakota, is the only visitor center dedicated to interpreting the National Grasslands and their unique ecosystems and resources.
Hudson-Meng Bison Bonebed located on the Oglala National Grassland in extreme northwest Nebraska is a 10,000 year old archaeological site that contains the largest concentration of remains from an extinct bison species in the western hemisphere. Summer excavations run from mid June until early August and visitors are welcome to learn firsthand the ever-changing story as scientists and volunteers delve into the ancient past. Future plans include building a permanent cover over the bonebed and a Prehistoric Prairies Discovery Center in the nearby town of Crawford.
Toadstool Park is within the boundary of the Oglala National Grassland, which is administered by the District Ranger in Chadron, Nebraska. The boundary of the area is irregular in shape and generally follows the edge of the "badlands" except on the southeast portion where private land lines are followed. The most interesting features and fossil deposits are found in the northern and western portions of the area. About 800 total acres are included within the area.
The topography has typical badlands characteristics—rough and highly eroded by both wind and water. Elevations vary from near 4,000 feet on the adjacent tablelands to about 3,700 feet in the bottoms of the canyons.
The area is important from a recreation and scientific viewpoint. The recreation visitor is offered the chance to observe the typical badlands scene with the attractive erosion patterns of "toadstools" in their natural state. The scientist is offered the opportunity to observe fossils, erosion patterns, and geological history as it is uncovered by natural erosion activity.
A great sea once covered the entire North American midlands from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. These waters receded with the uplift of the Rocky Mountains and Black Hills. They collected in inland seas which, in turn, left vast sandstone, shale and gypsum deposits. These materials are the soil and rock of the badlands. Wind and water has shaped them over the centuries into their present formations. All deposits in the Nebraska Badlands were made in the Tertiary Period of the Cenozoic Era.
The "Toadstools" are the main features of the area. The umbrella-like top giving it its characteristic toadstool effect is Arikaree Sandstone. The chalky white appearance comes from deposits of gypsum. The stool, or top, sits on a stem of Brule clay, a fine-grained, tan-colored powdery soil. The formations have a calcareous cementing. The toadstool effect was achieved through more rapid erosion of the clay "stem," which is less resistant to wind and water.
Many balanced rocks that are sedimentary formations are also found in the same area. These layers are also sandstone and are always tilted upward toward the Pine Ridge Escarpment. They too, rest on pedestals of clay.
Nebraska is world renowned for its deposits of vertebrate mammal material, and Toadstool Park Area is one of the most productive. The age of mammals of carnivorous nature include ancestors of our cats and dogs, small camels, oreodonts (pig-like animals) and wild pigs. Evidence of ancestral horses, deer and rhinoceros has also been uncovered. The uncovering of two Ice Age mammoths, about 12,000 years old, occurred just a few miles from here. One of them is on display at Fort Robinson, three miles west of Crawford. Earlier signs of life include shellfish, turtles, and snail fossils.
Bachelor Butte is adjacent to the Toadstool badlands. The butte is a unique table of grassland almost entirely cut off from cattle use by its steepness and eroded canyons. This isolated table offers an opportunity to see the vegetation in the area that has not been utilized by cattle.
Sugarloaf Butte is the identifying landmark of the Oglala National Grasslands. It is northeast of the Toadstool area (not on government land) and can be seen from almost any high point.
The Pine Ridge National Recreation Area is a 6,600-acre undeveloped area. It is an example of the Pine Ridge's best in scenic beauty. Rugged sandstone buttes jut from the surrounding ponderosa pine forest, dissected by small clear streams in hardwood bottoms. The Roberts Trailhead access point includes tables, fire grates, water, a restroom and a corral for stock. Motorized vehicles are not allowed.
The Steer Creek campground is located 19 miles south of Nenzel on the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest. This 23-unit campground is an ideal secluded vacation spot. Tucked among the 2,200 acres of man-planted conifer forest in the sprawling sandhills prairie, this site is only 18 miles from one of Nebraska's premier fishing and watersports areas, Merritt Reservoir. Picnic tables, water, fire grates, firewood and restrooms are provided. There is no camping fee.
Soldier Creek Wilderness was set aside by Congress in 1986 as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. A well developed trail system throughout the Wilderness allows hikers and horsebackers a variety of loop trail choices. Stock trailer parking, water, a group picnic facility and divided corrals are available at the trailhead.
Horseback riding is growing in popularity at both the Bessey Ranger District and the Pine Ridge Ranger District in western Nebraska. The annual Ride the Ridge is an event in July that highlights an experience available nearly year round. Many riders are discovering the Pine Ridge via the 27-mile Pine Ridge Trail, a multiple use trail designed to eventually extend 52 miles connecting Chadron and Crawford.
Mountain biking is another popular way to enjoy the Pine Ridge and Grasslands. A topographic map of the Pine Ridge is available and includes suggested routes complete with difficulty ratings. From the novice to the experienced rider, the Pine Ridge and Grasslands offer something for everyone.
Hunting, from prairie dogs to pronghorns and whitetails to sharptails, continues to be an important part of the recreation spectrum. From the prairies to the pines, hunters can pursue their favorite small or upland game as well as big game and even waterfowl.
Camping, whether on a trailer pad or in a quiet remote pocket of privacy, will revitalize the spirit and recharge energy. A prairie night under the stars is an experience to remember.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication