Standing at the base of a steep slope with black, dead, standing trees, black fallen trees and black stumps surrounding them, 40 high school students were instructed in the proper way to plant seedlings.
Students from South Umpqua High School and Glide High School were on the Bureau of Land Management site in the Rock Creek drainage Friday morning, planting Douglas fir and sugar pine seedlings where just a year ago a green forest of both young and older trees had covered the mountainsides. But the 131,542-acre Archie Creek Fire last fall turned the landscape black.
The students also listened as private and public forestry officials gave short talks about forestry management, wildfires, and recovery plans and efforts.
Cody Trent and Paul Kercher, Glide High freshmen, estimated they planted 36 seedlings as they climbed the steep slope. They worked under the guidance of Ben Kercher, the agricultural science and technology teacher at Glide.
“It’s been a fun day,” Trent said. “I’m glad I was able to come out here and help. When I go to sleep tonight, I’ll know I did something special today.”
Ben Kercher said he was pleased with the planting effort of the students.
“It feels good in a very small way to be part of the healing process,” Kercher said. He’s a Douglas County native and a 17-year resident of Glide who had traveled up the Rock Creek drainage and enjoyed its recreational opportunities many times before the fire changed the landscape.
Marlee Rogers and Angelica Navalta, South Umpqua freshmen, worked in a group of four planting seedlings.
“Seeing this is sad,” Rogers said of the blackened terrain.
“Being out here shows how we can help,” Navalta said. “It feels great to help our environment. It makes me proud to be part of the recovery.”
Communities For Healthy Forests, a nonprofit organization, has been coordinating seedling planting field trips for students for about 15 years. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, Lone Rock Timber and the Society of American Foresters also helped with Friday’s event.
The mission of CHF, a Roseburg-based group, is to inform the public and policy makers with facts supporting both pre- and post-forest management in regards to wildfire.
“We hope to broaden the understanding of young people in the causes and the opportunities to mediate through pre-fire management and post-fire management in regards to the impact of wildfire,” said Doug Robertson, executive director for the nonprofit. “Today, the emphasis was on post-fire recovery. What they did today was on a small scale, but to talk to them about reforestation in a highly severe burn area is important.”
Robertson explained to the students that it would be generations before any meaningful forest resource returned to the land because there is no natural seed source for natural regeneration.
“You have to give nature a hand to get this forest growing again, so you, your kids, your grandkids have the opportunity to enjoy what we enjoyed before it burned down,” he said to the students.
Before heading out with hard hats in place, shovels in hand and a bundle of seedlings, the students were instructed in the proper planting technique. Those details included spacing the trees about 10 feet apart, scraping out a flat spot on the slope so rain water will settle there rather than running straight downhill, digging a hole deep enough so the roots go straight down and aren’t curled back up, and patting the soil down around the seedling, eliminating any air gaps and giving the young tree a firmer hold in the earth.
“Planting trees is a lot more difficult than planting flowers,” Navalta said.
“We learned how trees help hold the ground,” Rogers said.
John Campbell, the ag instructor and FFA advisor at South Umpqua, said his students are in an Introduction to Ag class and are presently studying the Forest Fire unit.
“I hope the kids learn we have some control over wildfire with the proper forest management,” Campbell said. “We’re learning about the balance between prescribed burns and wildfires.
“Being out here is the ideal ag environment,” he added. “The students are fully engaged, using shovels, holding and planting seedlings. It’s so different than being in the classroom.”
Ben Kercher said he hoped the field trip would help his students better understand the life cycle of a forest and how fire is part of that life cycle.
Cheyne Rossbach, BLM’s assistant field manager, said it’s important for students to come out and see first hand the effects of fire on a forest and to learn about the natural resources and the recovery plans after the fire. He wanted to help the students understand the public process involved in restoring recreational areas and access. That includes addressing hazard trees at day use areas, picnic areas, parking lots and trailheads.
Rossbach said 1,200 acres of BLM land in the Archie Creek burn will be salvage logged this year.
“We really appreciate the kids coming out and wanting to help replant our public lands,” Rossbach said. “It’s just a matter of getting them (seedlings) in the ground, getting some moisture and watching them grow.”
Tim Freeman, a Douglas County commissioner, said it was a great learning experience for the students to listen to the forestry officials talk about forest management and wildfire. He added it’s important for the kids to know that the private land burned in the Archie Creek Fire will be “mostly reforested and become a green forest again” under the guidance of the Oregon Forest Practices Act while “most of the Forest Service and BLM lands will not be replanted or reforested” because of more restrictive federal regulations.
“I think it’s important for the students to hear that when they come up this road in 20 years, the private land will have at least 30-foot tall trees while on the public land will be tall brush,” Freeman said.
“I do appreciate CHF and its partners bringing kids out every year to experience this type of event,” he added.
Robertson said he was pleased with the planting effort and the response from the students. Despite the steepness of the slope, he said “Those kids charged right up the hill, planting the seedlings.”
“Even though what they did was on a small scale, getting this next generation of trees growing is so important because the recovery of the forest, the wildlife, the watershed will be expedited because of their planting efforts today,” he said.