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Shelterbelts: Relic or useful tools?

RURAL LARIMORE, N.D. -- It's a windy June morning, and two teams of National Resources Conservation Service employees are planting shelterbelts on the edge of a field that grew wheat last year.

Rain is forecast and the teams are anxious to finish. But the employees work diligently, inserting each fledgling tree and bush into the moist soil with care and practiced skill.

In all, about 16,000 trees are being planted in the project, which an NRCS official says will benefit the environment and wildlife for as long as 70 years,

"We're excited about this. There are a lot of benefits," says Paul Bjorg, a soil conservation technician with the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Soil Conservation District.

But such projects buck a longstanding trend. For years, area farmers have been more inclined to remove existing shelterbelts than to plant new ones. Big piles of trees, recently removed from dismantled shelterbelts, are a familiar sight in fields across much of North Dakota.

Farming has changed, and, for better or worse, many farmers see shelterbelts as outdated.

"The way we farm today is not the way our great-grandparents farmed," says Terry Weckerly, a Hurdsfield, N.D., farmer, and president of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association. "We haven't thrown out the book on conservation. We're just conserving the land is a different way," he says.

Conservation officials are careful not to criticize farmers who remove shelterbelts. But the officials also ask ag producers to take a fresh look at the issue.

"We encourage people to consider the benefits of trees in agricultural systems," says Larry Kotchman, North Dakota state forester.

Declining numbers?

Shelterbelts, also known as windbreaks or tree belts, once were prized by farmers on the windy Northern Plains. For several generations, windbreaks have helped to reduce soil erosion, provide wildlife habitat and shield farmsteads.

Some people reserve the term "shelterbelt" for windbreaks designed to protect farmsteads and livestock, and use "field windbreak" to describe tree rows meant to protect fields. In common useage, though, "shelterbelt" is increasingly popular as a description for both types.

As the name suggests, a shelterbelt consists of one or more rows of trees or shrubs. Typically, each row contains a different type of tree or shrub, with the arrangement designed to benefit wildlife and the environment.

North Dakota, in particular, is known for its shelterbelts. Since the 1930s, more than 55,000 miles of windbreaks have been planted in the state, according to information from the North Dakota Forest Service.

Though hard figures are tough to come by, the number of miles of windbreaks actually in place may be much smaller.

Thousands of miles of shelterbelts in North Dakota have been removed annually in recent years, estimates Rodd Zorn, owner of Z's Trees in Cooperstown, N.D., a tree-removal business.

Kotchman says there's no official count of how many shelterbelts are being removed.

It's also uncertain how many miles of new shelterbelts are being planted. But it's unlikely that new plantings are sufficient to offset the lost shelterbelts, officials say.

"A lot are being taken out. Some are being replaced, but most aren't," says Tom Hanson, executive director of the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

By all accounts, weather, disease, insects and age have eliminated much or even all of the effectiveness of many shelterbelts planted in the 1950s and early 1960s. Many such shelterbelts are being removed, but relatively few are being replaced.

Consider the disparity in tree plantings in western Grand Forks County from 1950 to 1965 and more recent years, using statistics supplied by Bjorg.

Grand Forks County sometimes is billed as the "shelterbelt capital of the world."

Roughly 120,000 to 230,000 trees were planted annually from 1950 to 1965 in western Grand Forks (N.D.) Country. The one exception came in 1958, when 77,250 trees were planted.

In contrast, an average of about 24,000 trees were planted annually in western Grand Forks County from 1999 to 2006, when many of the trees planted in 1950 to '65 had reached the end of their useful life. (The Western and Eastern Grand Forks County Soil Conservation districts merged in 2006, skewing subsequent annual planting numbers.)

Farmers' perspective

Fields often are divided into quarter sections (160 acres) and "80s" (80 acres.)

Decades ago, one or more shelterbelts often were planted on a quarter or 80. That divided a single field into several -- for example, an 80 might have become two 40-acre fields -- and protected topsoil in all the fields from wind erosion.

Now, many farmers are removing shelterbelts to combine fields into a single, bigger one.

Shelterbelts did what they were supposed to, but times have changed, Weckerly says.

Most farmers today use production methods that leave more organic matter on the field and disturb the soil less, greatly decreasing the need for windbreaks, he says.

Shelterbelts often become "a nuisance, an obstacle," he says.

For example, branches breaking off trees and falling into fields complicates farming, he says.

More significantly, shelterbelts make it more difficult to apply chemicals properly, he says.

Weckerly says removing shelterbelts that interfere with chemical application allows farmers to become better stewards.

"Being a good steward of the land is more than just putting trees in the ground," he says.

Tree-removers' take

People paid to remove trees say they often hear negative comments from the public.

"We've been called everything from barbers to butchers," Zorn says.

Some people are particularly upset when apparently healthy trees are removed, he says.

But a tree isn't necessarily healthy "just because there's green on it." Also, many tall trees in shelterbelts are at risk of being blown over by high winds, he says.

His business, which operates across North Dakota and into western Minnesota, has been increasingly busy the past few years, he says.

Wet conditions this year have made removing shelterbelts more difficult, Zorn says.

In most cases, trees removed by Shelterbelts Solutions of Crystal, N.D., are dead or diseased, says Clyde Reilly, owner. His business removes shelterbelts primarily in central North Dakota.

Many of the trees being removed were planted decades ago and have come to the end of their useful lives, he says.

That's particularly true of some species such as Chinese elm, which turned out to be poorly suited to this region, he and others say.

NRCS officials, for their part, say that today they have better varieties of trees and an improved understanding of what to plant.

Reilly identifies three other factors that influence the decision to remove shelterbelts:

n With bigger farm equipment, some shelterbelts become a nuisance to farm around.

n Snow that builds up in and around shelterbelts can lead to wet spots in the field.

n Shelterbelts can interfere with pivot systems used in irrigation.

Many factors, including soil type, influence the cost of removing a shelterbelt, Reilly says.

"Every job is different," he says.

His business has charged $1,500 to $9,000 to remove a half mile of trees.

"We'll give you a quote before any work is done," he says.

Some farmers remove shelterbelts themselves with their own equipment.

Shelterbelt Solutions, which uses skid-steer loaders with attachments specifically designed for tree removal, can do the job more safely and efficiently, he says.

Benefits of shelterbelts

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, works with landowners through voluntary programs to conserve natural resources on private land.

Reducing wind and water erosion are the main goals of the NRCS in North Dakota.

Shelterbelts can reduce erosion, protect structures and livestock, manage snow, improve irrigation efficiency and mark field boundaries, among other benefits, according to information from the NRCS.

Windbreaks also can alter "microenvironments" and enhance plant growth, officials say.

Wildlife and conservation groups see value in shelterbelts, too.

Shelterbelts provide shelter for wildlife, include deer, turkeys and migratory songbirds, says Marissa Ahlering, prairie ecologist with The Nature Conservancy in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

The organization, which seeks to protect nature and preserve life, doesn't have a formal position on shelterbelts, officials say.

Though tall trees don't provide particularly good habitat for pheasants, shelterbelts often include shrubs and bushes that benefit the bird, says Jesse Beckers, North Dakota field representative for Pheasants Forever.

One landowner's decision

Joe Solseng, a Grand Forks County landowner, describes himself as "a wildlife guy."

Solseng, who owns the quarter section on which the 16,000 trees are being planted in rural Larimore, northwest of Grand Forks, N.D., saw "a lot of opportunities" for the land.

The site is secluded, with many existing trees and several coulees through which water from adjacent land flows. Adding more trees will make it even more desirable to wildlife.

He began working four years with NRCS officials to develop a plan for the land.

Solseng is doing more than planting trees. He's putting the rest of the 112 tillable acres into the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to protect environmentally sensitive topsoil, improve water quality and enhance wildlife habitat.

A few acres are going into a special riparian program that will help to improve water quality in the nearby Turtle River and also the Red River, into which the Turtle flows.

Solseng notes that crop prices have soared the past few years, even as he's moved forward with plans to take the farmland out of production.

"How smart am I?," he asks.

He also notes that the land is difficult to reach and that the coulees make it harder to farm, which decreases the land's appeal to farmers.

Solseng says he'll do OK financially with the shelterbelts -- the government is paying some of the cost -- and CRP payments. He takes satisfaction in the benefits to wildlife and the environment that the project will bring.

His advice for other people interested in planting shelterbelts:

"Stick with simple trees that grow well here and realize that it (planting and tending trees) is a lot of work."

Financial incentives

Financial assistance often is available to help plant shelterbelts.

Here's an example provided by Bjorg:

The Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District charges $22 per 100 linear feet, which works out to $580.80 for half miles of a single-row windbreak.

An agricultural producer who meets all the eligibility requirements can receive cost-share assistance from the Continuous Conservation Reserve Program, or CCRP. In the example used here, the CCRP would pay $277.20 to help establish the windbreak.

In addition to the cost-share assistance, the producer would receive a Practice Incentive Payment of $221.76.

That leaves the producer to pay about $80 of the $580.80 price tag, in this example.

Shelterbelt supporters say that current high crop prices increase the importance of financial incentives for tree-plantings.

Decades of benefits

The trees being planted in the rural Larimore project will begin providing benefits in two to five years and will continue to provide them for 50 to 70 years, Bjorg says.

To shelterbelt advocates, including Nedra Hoberg, operations and education coordinator for the Grand Forks County Soil Conservation District, windbreaks continue to play a useful, important role.

Hobert, who was overseeing the tree-plantings on the rural Larimore project, has been helping to plant shelterbelts for more than 20 years.

"Seeing those (now mature) trees is satisfying," she says.

And how does she feel when she sees healthy, established shelterbelts being removed?

She pauses for a moment, choosing her words with care, before saying, "That's the difficult part."

She pauses again and says, "We encourage people to look at the benefits of shelterbelts."