NEBRASKAland July 2016

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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Page 33 of 79

D uring the summer of 1982, my job as a graduate student was to find old-growth ponderosa pine forest in the Black Hills; the following summer I would help document the stands' unique flora. With leads from foresters, my searches inevitably led me to deep canyons, rocky slopes or other backcountry inaccessible to sawyers of the yesteryear. Standing beneath the towering "yellowbarks," I often felt primordial enchantment, while my thoughts drifted to times past. What history had these trees witnessed as they grew from saplings to towering giants? How many lightning strikes, droughts and wildfires had they survived? Also impressed by lofty and majestic ponderosa pines, in 1829 the Scottish explorer and botanist David Douglas, while on an expedition in eastern Washington, documented the pine as a species new to science, bestowing it with the scientific name Pinus ponderosa. The Latin term ponderosus means "of great weight and significance." A Far Ranging Species The most drought- and fire-tolerant of all western pines, ponderosa pine wandered down from the Rocky Mountains onto the grassy plains of Nebraska. Here, it grows on the Panhandle's Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge escarpments and follows the steep and rugged Niobrara River valley eastward to Rock County. Isolated stands in deep loess canyons in Garfield and Custer counties are the species' eastern most outposts on the North American continent. Range wide, ponderosa pine occurs from southwestern Canada southward and eastward following the Rockies through every western state and into central Mexico, occupying elevations ranging from sea level to 10,000 feet. A genetically diverse and adaptable species, it survives as a gnarled dwarf on the desert fringe of the Southwest, while reaching 250 foot-tall splendor on the moist, lower slopes of the Cascade Range in Oregon and Washington. The untouched western ponderosa pine forests could be expansive. In 1857, Lieutenant Edward Beale traveling in central Arizona wrote that "a vast forest of gigantic pine, intersected frequently with open glades ... was traversed by our party for many days." Extending into eastern New Mexico this forest was 25 to 40 miles wide and almost 300 miles long. Great Plains ponderosa pine forests, in comparison, were mere shadows of the sweeping mountain stands – and rather recent immigrants. During the peak of the Wisconsin Glaciation (12,000 to 20,000 years ago) the northern Plains were too cold By Gerry Steinauer, Botanist The Iconic Tree of the West A History of Ponderosa Pine PHOTO BY JUSTIN HAAG 34 NEBRASKAland • JULY 2016

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