Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2000


Published in Great Plains Research 10 (Spring 2000): 69-84. Copyright © 2000 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


Johnson and Boettcher (2000) question the status of the presettlement Platte River as a prairie river, and they argue that it was "a wooded river traversing a prairie landscape." Here we review evidence in support of the prairie river concept, suggesting the channels of the Platte were predominantly open and largely absent of trees. Direct support for a prairie river is found in the detailed map drawn by Lieutenant Woodbury in locating the site for Fort Kearny in 1847. Woodbury showed a thin strip of timber, located in an area that appeared to be elevated above the influence of active river flows. Woodbury also illustrated the main channel as having vegetated islands only in one location, with only a "scattering [of] trees" along the banks. Historical accounts, an examination of historical perspectives, the distribution of land survey witness trees, a lack of regeneration of trees following supposed deforestation, and population changes in bird distributions over the past 100 years also support the prairie river concept. We argue woodland development is not true restoration in this area. Given current conditions, we suggest that long term management should be for a mosaic of habitats for migratory birds and other species including 10% open river channel in the Big Bend reach of the Platte River in central Nebraska.