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From Nebraska's first Christmas tree farm to a place of refuge

       Nebraska’s first Christmas tree farm didn’t start out as that, nor will it move into the future with that role.

      When Walt and Virginia Bagley purchased the 145-acre farm at the northeast edge of Lincoln in 1959, it was a typical farm with row crops and livestock. But they had a different vision for the place… to turn it into Nebraska’s first “choose and cut” Christmas tree farm. At the time, Christmas trees were shipped in from other states to be sold, and Walt thought it was time for a change. If “grow local, buy local” wasn’t a movement at the time, the Bagleys started it.

      They planted Scotch, Austrian, ponderosa and red pines to get things started; and in 1965, the first sales began at Prairie Pines Christmas Tree Farm. As years went on, white pine and concolor fir became the most popular species. In its most prolific years, Prairie Pines provided Christmas trees for display at important places like the Nebraska State Capitol, the Governor’s Mansion and Sheldon Museum of Art. The farm employed local youth to help with tree sales and was a member of the Nebraska Christmas Tree Growers’ Association, with Walt serving as President of the organization in 1972. 

To shelter the trees they were growing, the Bagleys installed windbreaks around the plantings. Walt had a background in forestry and had worked for the Prairie States Forestry Project to create a network of windbreaks from North Texas to Canada in hopes of preventing another Dust Bowl like the one in the 1930s. From 1959-1975, the Bagleys added approximately 10,000 feet of field windbreaks to the farm, a diverse mix of Osage orange, hackberry, elm, eastern redcedar, multiple species of pine and other hardwood trees, as well as an orchard of apple, walnut and pecan trees. Some of the cropland was left open but terraced to reduce erosion and converted to native warm-season grasses to complement the 10 acres of rare virgin prairie on the southeast corner of the property. 

      Prairie Pines was a first in another, and very influential, way as well. The Bagleys knew they would need to protect their forest refuge from urbanization as Lincoln continued to expand. So they worked to promote passage of legislation under the Conservation and Preservation Easement Act of 1981. In 1982, Prairie Pines became the first conservation easement in Nebraska under the supervision of the Lower Platte South Natural Resource District. The easement stipulates maintenance of the property’s woodlands, windbreaks and native prairies in perpetuity with no additional residences, paved roads or disturbances of the soil. 

      With more than 200 tree and woody shrub species at Prairie Pines, the surrounding wildlife grew and prospered. Numerous species of songbirds, raptors, turkeys, deer, small mammals and even threatened species like the northern long-eared bat found refuge in their protection. It was the first home of Raptor Recovery of Nebraska, and the Bagleys were joint founders of Washiska Audubon, later affiliated with the National Audubon Society.

      Gradually over time, Prairie Pines had taken on a new purpose—one of resource conservation and species diversity.

      To make sure the place they called home would continue to shelter the diverse plant and animal life surrounding it, in 1992 the Bagleys donated their property to the University of Nebraska Foundation. Guided by their vision that Prairie Pines should forever remain “a refuge for all living things,” it continues its transformation into a wildlife refuge, arboretum and overall wonderful place to be. 

      Then as now, the ideals of conservation reign supreme at Prairie Pines. The property is now managed by the Nebraska Forest Service on behalf of the University of Nebraska Foundation and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources with the intent of expanding education and outreach activities through cooperation with local non-profit organizations such as Prairie Pines Partners, Community Crops, Nebraska Statewide Arboretum and others. Though not open to the public on an ongoing basis, events are periodically hosted there and tours are available by appointment at http://www.prairiepines.org/. (This article includes contributions from a history of Walt and Virginia Bagley compiled by Sue Kohles of Prairie Pines Partners.)

Aaron Clare, Nebraska Forest Service, nfs.unl.edu