Steamboat Springs Along a hillside in the Routt National Forest, a crew of six men moved across a landscape Wednesday filled with rocks, fireweeds and charred trees.
The steady sound of hoedads striking stone filled the air as each man took a swing with his sharpened tool to remove a layer of earth. Every three steps, they stooped down and removeed a bare-root seedling from a satchel slung around their waist and placed it in the ground. Three feet later, a swing of the tool, another seedling was planted.
Working up the hillside and planting lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce seedlings to the ridgeline more than 900 feet away will consume their day.
For the past four years, foresters have planted about 60,000 seedlings annually in the Routt National Forest. Most of the work happens in a two-week span in June.
"I'm never going to plant a tree for Arbor Day," joked crewmember Brian Haas as he loaded 120 seedlings into his satchel. "I figure planting 4,000 trees covers me for about 4,000 Earth Days."
The hillside, located in the Diamond Park area off Forest Service Road 44, was littered with fallen trees that fell victim to the 1997 blowdown. The storm produced winds in excess of 100 miles an hour that flattened 20,000 acres of old growth forest in the Routt National Forest and Mount Zirkel Wilderness area. A fire swept through the area in 2002, further stripping the area of vegetation.
"We got double whammied here," said Forester Jeff Hartling, who explained that when the trees were blown down, their seeds dropped into the soil to replace the lost trees. "Nature was starting to regenerate, but the fire came through and destroyed all the seeds."
Four years after the fire, very little natural growth is reappearing in the area, Hartling said. Typically, a forest naturally regenerates 70 to 80 percent of the time after fires.
"It was real hit and miss," said Hartling, who pointed to a hillside across an adjoining valley. "Over there, it didn't blow down, so the seed source stayed in the trees until the fire came through, which released the seeds."
The crew moved across the landscape, planting in 9-foot by 9-foot spacing. With each cling of the hoedad on stone, a reverberation ran down Jonathan Tucker's spine. After 12 days of planting, the forester said his back is sore and his hands are covered in calluses, but signs of previous years' efforts have taken root.
"If you look right at the junction of (Forest Service Road) 43 and 433, we planted that in 2003, and they are almost 3 feet tall," he said. "It's really cool. You see all those little trees in the skyline about 8 feet apart, and now they are above the vegetation."
Shaded under a tarp next to a forest service pickup truck, a few thousand seedlings were neatly packed into cardboard boxes in bags of 10 that were shipped from a U.S. Forest Service nursery in Nebraska.
"They have all our seeds in storage there, so when we order trees from them, it's local seed," said Hartling, who noted the seeds have been collected for 30 years and kept in cold storage. "We send the cones and they extract the seed. This year, we ordered 36,000 lodgepole and 16,000 spruce, and they just sow them in the nursery, grow them up and box them for us."
The 6- to 10-inch seedlings grew for four months in a greenhouse before they were shipped to Routt National Forest. Hartling said botanists trick the trees by altering temperature and light to spur growth in the root system while curbing the bud.
"They turn the lights out and make them think the days are getting shorter so they go into dormancy just like any tree would do in the winter time," he said. "It helps to get the roots established. If the tree starts taking off, the roots can't keep it up, so it's good to have the roots established to anchor the tree in."
By the end of the day, each man planted about 360 seedlings, which worked out to 537 trees per acre.
"With a 90-percent success ratio, that puts us at about 450 (per acre), which would be pretty good," Hartling said. "We scrape the dirt so you have a little bare patch to minimize competition. Up here, it burned so hot all we got are some fireweed, but the seedlings can't compete if they are covered in it."
Due to snowpack followed by a month of mud, the crew couldn't plant in June. Hartling said an additional 14,000 trees will be planted in the fall, but, in the meantime, he's looking for rain.
"All we can do is stick them in the ground and hope for a good thunderstorm," he said. "Mother nature does what she does."