Seen from the air, much of North Dakota’s forest grows in rows laid out on the land as if by a ruler.
That legacy forest of tree rows and shelterbelts is getting old and decrepit, leaving the land more open to erosion and the homes they surround more exposed to heat and cold.
Larry Kotchman, head of the North Dakota Forest Service, plans to change that over the next several years. He’s got $1.8 million to get started, thanks to a grant from the new North Dakota Outdoor Heritage Fund. Now, he needs rural landowners who’d like to give their shelterbelts and tree rows a fresh start and split the cost.
“There’s a significant need out there, and this is the first time we’re getting a goodly amount of money to devote to this,” Kotchman said.
The numbers back up his worry.
Going back to the '30s, there have been about 55,000 miles of shelterbelts and tree rows planted in North Dakota.
Here and in other states across the Great Plains, it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of those plantings are in poor to fair condition, he said.
It only takes a short drive through the countryside to see tree rows dying. They’re being ripped out and piled up for burning, and some shelterbelts have tree species reaching the end of their natural lives.
“Those windbreaks still play a huge role out there. They do a lot to encourage protection from erosion, up to 10 times the distance of their height. They increase row crop productivity by 10 to 25 percent, and livestock sheltered there see improved weight gains of 10 percent,” Kotchman said. “A farmstead will see energy savings of 20 to 30 percent in less heating and cooling.”
What’s old is still new and what’s newer still is the global warming benefit by which trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and emit oxygen.
“There’re a lot of good reasons to have windbreaks,” he said.
Kotchman turns to Liz Smith, stewardship specialist, to turn those grant dollars into actual trees planted in the countryside.
Smith said she can hardly wait to get out and help rural landowners replant their forests.
“I call them forests; they do the same thing as a forest and more,” Smith said.
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People who are interested can fill out an application on the agency’s website. Next, Smith will schedule a consultation with the landowner, a forester and Soil Conservation District technician.
The program is only for renewing existing plantings, not starting new ones or replacing trees removed in previous years. Rural landowners will identify trees that need removal, get those removed and plant substitute trees and shrubs.
The Forest Service will provide as much as $10,000 per successful application. The landowner will match the grant amount and the match can include a land rental credit, Smith said.
Today’s tree plantings are as rowed-up as they ever were, but they’re smarter, thanks to lessons from the past when those long lines of Siberian elms, a fast-growing, but relatively short-lived tree, all died out.
“It’s all about diversity, diversity, diversity. We cannot stress that enough,” said Smith, explaining that recommended trees and shrubs will vary by soil type and location across the state. “This can be a real challenge. With landowners wondering how to do this, with the funds we have, we can help."
One of those may be Jim Unkenholz, who has land near St. Anthony. He likes the established shelterbelts on his land and has cleared and replanted rows and individual trees over the years.
“It’s ongoing, and I keep working at it. We like them for their beauty and for the birds they bring. They catch snow so it doesn’t blow across the yard,” Unkenholz said.
He’s less sure he will replace what he calls field rows because, in dry years, the trees take water from crops planted alongside.
Smith agrees those field row trees present a different conversation.
“There would be a lot more variables — the commodity, the size of the equipment is too big to get around. The soil isn’t black every year like it used to be, and there’s a perception that they don’t need trees anymore," said Smith, pointing out that a properly functioning tree row can spread snow across an entire field and wind protection prevents moisture transpiration from the crops.
Sometimes, landowners are more interested when they think about the benefit of providing habitat for wildlife.
“For landowners who enjoy hunting, there are those six months out of the year when there is no crop,” she said.
Kotchman said he hopes the program involves as many as 320 landowners with a two-acre project. The program will start this year for next year’s plantings and continue into 2017.