Apr 21st, 2005 - 21:10:55
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Voices of Spencer Creek
It's that time of the year again for recovering treeplanters. Last year I had undertaken an initial conversion across the river of unused pasture land into a conifer plantation. Karen had had the five acres of scotch broom and high grass mowed flat last winter and the planting was relatively easy. This year the dead grass is thigh high and I get to chop a 24 inch scalp down to mineral soil for each tree.
The luck of the draw was a 1000 tree lot of poor quality Douglas fir seedlings last year and many of them died on the west end of the unit. Most of the rest are nothing to write home about and I plant Ponderosa pine seedlings within two feet of them hoping something will take. I ordered no fir for the project this year but did get 100 incense cedar to add a little variety. Incense cedar provide nut-like seeds that squirrels like to eat so there will be silver gray squirrels making the rounds in the fall across the river one of these years. I planted 300 P pines last year and while they had a higher survival rate than the wretched fir, there were still a lot of gaps in the ranks that I need to fill this year. I found some vole damage on the north edge of the unit and so Karen's sister will wrap kitchen foil around the bole of each new planted seedling and put a higher ring of Reynold's wrap around every surviving tree from the initial planting. She foiled 1,450 seedlings on last year's project.
The seedling pine arrived, with the 16,000 minor species for BLM's Eugene District where I work, from the D. H. Phipps nursery near Elkton, in the next county south of here. I brought home five hundred pine and the 100 incense cedar home with me for the three day MLK weekend. I piled the paper tree bags out in the unheated shop with a thermometer. You don't want the little trees to freeze or get warm. 34 degrees is perfect. Saturday morning and I am across the river with a fire fighting shovel, a bucket of water, a bag of trees and an old tobacco hoe liberated from my grandmother's ranch on the Siletz River after she died and before it was sold.
I open the tree bag and put about half the pines in the bucket along with a handful of vibrant incense cedars. The bag gets rolled up and put in the shade of a big scotch broom. I take Gramma's hoe, filed to knife like sharpness the night before and commence scalping. The razor steel slices off the vegetation just below ground level and leaves a two foot expanse of dark brown clay with dirty clumps of grass and root to the side. I do about a dozen scalps before I start wheezing and lean on the hoe. I decide to take a break and plant the bare dirt.
With plastic bucket in one hand and shovel in the other, I walk to the first site. I stomp the worn shovel blade in the dirt, rocking it as I push it in a little deeper each stomp. When it is all the way in, I pull it out and rotate it 90 degrees and repeat the process. The heavy clay is ruptured in big chunks and I stab it one handedly with the shovel until it settles into something akin to garden soil. A final stamp and I push the shovel forward to arm's length, pull it back to my shoulder and a hole appears. I select the biggest P pine I can see from the bucket and with a practiced flick of the wrist, sort of twist it into the hole so that the gnarly wet pine roots are pointing down and touching the bottom of the hole. Then I gently tromp the loose dirt to close the hole and pull the seedling up an inch or so to straighten the root system until the root collar is at surface level. I give the planting a V shaped double stomp to pack the soil and eliminate air pockets as I pick up my bucket and shovel and move on. That's one.
This is not very high production planting. Kevin, the neighbor at the end of Fire Road, planted 1000 trees the same day a few miles away. He didn't have to scalp but the clay he was working was very wet and clung to his tools and he wore it home at nightfall. I continue the routine of scalping ahead a dozen spots and then standing the hoe on end so I can find it easily and walking back to the shovel and bucket. I could use a hoedad to both scalp and plant and thus have only one tool to keep track of but the back of the hoedad doesn't scalp nearly as well as the old tobacco hoe. Its 17 inch long hoe blade doesn't plant as well on flat ground as the shovel either and you have to swing it so your knuckles almost strike the ground in order to get a vertical planting hole. So I stick with my two tool system.
After about 100 trees the old fire fighting shovel handle breaks and I get to drive up the Siuslaw Access Road and turn off on Fire Road to get home and find a replacement. Since I have everything else on the unit, I simply shoulder a fiber glass handled shovel I picked up alongside the freeway a few years ago and walk from the shop to the end of Fire Road, across a little field, over a Snuffy Smith footlog that bridges the Siuslaw, and I am on the unit again.
The weather is cool and wet and my fifty year old body is starting to complain about the abuse I am giving it. It take a good two dozen swipes with the hoe to clear each planting spot. The old tobacco hoe is mounted on a pick handle as this is the only type of handle that I have been able to find that will fit it. I suspect the original handle was at least a foot longer. I have to lean over further than I like to employ the hoe but it does cut the weeds down to mineral soil right quickly. I found the hoe head in a pile of junk at the ranch and suspect that it was in a fire at one time by the way it looks. If I could find a four foot handle for the thing, I would be a scalping machine.
As I work away from the point of the long triangular unit, I find more surviving trees that look like they are going to make it. The point of the unit is lower than the rest and is therefore muddier. The mud sticks to the blade of the shovel until I reach high ground. I plant ten pines and then an incense cedar. Sometimes I put the incense cedar over the line into the old RR right of way as they have no commercial value and should do just fine in the rocky grade. I don't think the timber company that owns the old right of way will care. My arms ache as I drive the hoe through the wet clay. There are no rocks in the brown gumbo so the old steel retains its keen edge. When summer comes the clay will turn to ce-ment and the trees will stress unless we get heavy rain in August.
I lean on my hoe and listen to the Von Traps across the river, a hundred meters to my south. I hear nail pounding and horses whinnying. The Von Traps just recently moved into the little house at the absolute end of Fire Road with seven kids and eight horses. I would like to be a fly on the wall to see how they all fit in the place. The house was originally designed as a guest house with a double garage downstairs where Mustang Sally and her husband planned to live while they built the real house next to it. After an ugly divorce, they split the sheets and the place at the end of the roads has changed hands a couple of times since then. Coffee break's over, back on my head. The scotch broom came bounding back after last year's mowing. With it came the voles. I have not been able to figure out the relationship between broom and voles but there is one. Scotch broom is a woody stemmed plant that will take over a hay field in a few years. Some of the mowed broom is now four feet tall. This will not do.
Voles are little rat-like rodents that love to gnaw. As I have said, they seem to live in broom and they will gnaw on young trees like miniature beavers. Katherine foiled all the trees I planted last year but I have found a place where they are climbing over the foil to gnaw on the vigorous surviving trees. I suspect the sap is already starting to rise and the voles find it sweet. Katherine will be foiling for some time to come. She can pull the scotch broom with a weed wrench and this may stop the little devils. It is my experience that they always infiltrate a plantation from one point and spread out like shock waves. They dig shallow runnels and are the prey of owls, hawks, bobcats, weasels and coyotes. Our cats like to go out back to my three acre wood and catch a few voles for a snack or the entertainment value. Dogs love to dig for them.
Converting feral pasture to a conifer plantation is a lot like work. I am planting the trees a little thicker than I did last year. It will probably take one more replanting before I can get an established crop of trees going. In addition to the summer drought and the voles, the grass will grow taller than the trees for a few years to rob them of the sunshine they need. The broom will try to choke out the saplings. Eventually, if you keep replanting and foiling the voles, you will get a fine crop of trees going that will need no maintenance unless you choose to prune them to make clear lumber some day.
Pruning not only increases the value of the future timber but it also reduces fire hazard as the remaining limbs are not right at ground level to provide ladder fuel for a grass fire to run into. There will be less vegetation beneath the canopy of trees and deer and elk shelter in older plantations. There is a small tax advantage for converting unused pasture land into a tree plantation but only a recovering tree planter is crazy enough to attempt such a thing. Tomorrow I will go back and hammer a couple hundred trees into the ground along the muddy Siuslaw.
Copyright © 2004 by Norm Maxwell
Norm Maxwell is a regular contributor to West By Northwest.org. Norm Maxwell received the 2004 Best of West By Northwest award for his article, The Fire of South Canyon: Remembering Storm King. Tens of thousands of readers have "voted" with their mouse by their selection of this story. Visit Norm Maxwell's other pieces about land use, firefighting and life in the country and more at West By Northwest.org.
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