Human hands have given the circle of life a faster spin for the past 16 years in a fire-ravaged pocket of the Black Hills National Forest.
It begins in the fall when men heave themselves up the trunks of ponderosa pine trees to snip green cones from the branches.
It continues 300 miles away in Nebraska, where the cones are dried and the seeds are extracted and grown into seedlings.
In the spring, a truck covers the 300 miles again, this time returning the seedlings to South Dakota, where migrant workers implant them in the ground at the superhuman pace of about 1,000 trees per person, per day.
It all happens one cone, a few seeds and one seedling at a time, but it has added up to 2 million trees planted since 2003 at an estimated cost of nearly $2 million to the Black Hills National Forest.
And it was all made necessary by an arsonist who tossed a match in 2000 (she subsequently served 15 years in prison and was paroled in 2016). The match ignited the Jasper Fire, which burned across 130 square miles in the Jewel Cave area and blazed its way into the record books as the largest fire in the recorded history of the Black Hills. Today, much of the formerly forested area is covered with grass and littered with the desiccated trunks of burned trees that are slowly decaying into the landscape.
The fire affected an estimated 239 million board feet of timber. In other words, if all the trees killed by the fire had been preemptively harvested and processed into boards measuring 1 foot long, 1 foot wide and 1 inch thick, the boards would’ve covered 45,000 miles when laid end-to-end — almost enough to circle the earth twice.
Compared to the fire’s giant footprint, the 2 million trees that have been planted since then are like specks of paint on a mostly blank canvas.
But it’s a start. Without human help, reforestation would depend on the lonely ponderosa pines that survived the Jasper Fire. Their seeds don’t spread far, and any new trees they spawn could take 60 years to produce viable seeds of their own.
At that pace, it could take centuries for individual trees to multiply into groves.
The U.S. Forest Service doesn’t want to wait that long. So, every two to seven years, when conditions are cool and moist enough to produce a bumper crop of pine cones, fall is cone-picking season in the southern Black Hills.
The cone pickers
To learn that people are paid to collect pine cones in a national forest is to imagine a crew leisurely strolling through nature, stooping here and there to pick up a cone from the forest floor.
To watch an actual cone-picker working in a national forest is something entirely different.
Pine cones on the ground are no good for seed-collecting. Those cones have already dried out, opened up and released their seeds. To get the seeds before they flitter away, the cones have to be harvested while they’re still green, sealed up and attached to a tree.
That requires climbing the ramrod-straight trunks of mature pine trees in the Black Hills, which is like trying to ascend a flag pole covered in scratchy, crumbly bark.
Last September, Chris Cawley, of Missoula, Montana, demonstrated the technique on a 40-foot-tall tree.
Using a thick rope wrapped around the tree and attached to his waist harness, Cawley used the rope’s purchase on the bark to support his upper body while his knees and feet clamped onto the trunk. Then he slide the rope higher, used it to pull himself up, and clamped his knees and feet onto the trunk again.
Scenes from a September 2018 pine-cone-picking operation in the southern Black Hills. The cones, which are picked every two to seven years dep…
In that alternating fashion — pulling with the rope, clamping with the legs, again and again, all the while lugging extra ropes and a long-handled pruner hanging from his waist harness — he violently struggled about halfway up the tree. There, he reached some branches strong enough to support his feet, paused, and wrapped another rope around the tree and affixed it to his harness, like a rock climber clipping onto a bolt.
“It’s kind of just like a scramble to the first branch,” Cawley said, “and you use clip lines to keep you safe.”
From there he continued to the top of the tree, using the stronger branches like ladder rungs.
At the top, he grabbed his long-handled pruner and began cutting off the tips of pine-cone-bearing branches, while working his way back down the tree.
The branch segments, weighted by the living, greenish and surprisingly hefty pine cones, whistled toward the earth like bombs and thumped onto the ground. Soon the base of the tree was littered all around with branch-ends and pine cones, and Cawley descended to gather up the cones.
Then it was on to the next tree. Cawley, a wiry-framed 39-year-old, said he can climb 10 trees and collect up to 18 bushels of pine cones on a good day.
He started picking cones 20 years ago, after being a teenage rock climber.
“I figured nobody was going to pay me to climb rocks,” Cawley said. “But there were lots of people climbing trees.”
He now works for Roan & Associates, of Montana. Besides picking cones, the company does other land-restoration work, such as planting trees and sagebrush, and collecting pollen. Cawley supplements his income with construction jobs during the winter, but he otherwise stays in the woods as much as he can.
“One of the great things about this country is its forest and its public land,” he said. “There’s a lot of places in the world that didn’t take care of their forests so well, and doing this work ensures that future generations have that opportunity.”
In September, Cawley was leading a five-man crew of cone pickers on the fringes of the Jasper Fire area, about 20 miles west and a little north of Custer. Cones are picked there because seeds will grow better if they’re picked at about the same elevation as they’ll be planted.
The crew picked cones all day, getting paid by the bushel, and slept in tents at a campground in Newcastle, Wyoming. Their stay in the Black Hills lasted a few weeks, and they picked about 1,000 bushels of cones, all of which were bagged in burlap and hauled to the last place anyone would expect to find a tree nursery: the mostly treeless Sandhills of north-central Nebraska.
The seed sowers
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The U.S. Forest Service’s Charles E. Bessey Nursery was founded in 1902 and named for a botany professor who pioneered experimental tree-planting in the Great Plains.
The nursery is just outside the town of Halsey, Nebraska, population 76. The broader setting is the Sandhills, a vast region of dunes created by desert conditions that existed centuries ago. Today the dunes are anchored in place by uneven grass cover, and the Sandhillls are a beautifully spartan place populated mostly by cattle.
As improbable as the Sandhills seem for the location of a tree nursery, the region has some qualities that make it ideal for the job. Those include reserves of underground water that can be tapped with shallow wells to water the trees, and soil of a loose and sandy makeup that makes it easy to uproot young trees for transplantation.
October 2018 scenes from the U.S. Forest Service's Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery in Nebraska, where seeds are extracted from Black Hills pine…
Each year, the Bessey Nursery supplies about 2 million young trees to state conservation agencies and the national forests of the Rocky Mountain region.
Last fall, when the Black Hills pine cones picked by Cawley and his crew arrived at the nursery, they received an enthusiastic greeting from the nursery’s hands-on manager, Richard Gilbert.
Gilbert not only runs the nursery but also lives in a house on-site. He’s been there for 14 years and still views the life cycle of trees with energetic wonder.
“It’s amazing, man. It really is,” he said. “It’s really cool. It’s awesome to be part of it, that’s for sure.”
Upon receiving the burlap bags full of Black Hills pine cones, Gilbert and his crew of five full-time and six seasonal employees laid out the sacks in a storage building to dry. Pine cones can remain there for two to six weeks until the nursery crew is ready to process them.
Next, the pine cones are spread onto wooden boxes with wire-mesh bottoms and are subjected to 48 hours of hot, dry propane heat to open them up.
After the transformation from closed, green cylinders into open, brown cones is complete, the next step is the tumbler, which looks like an industrial clothes dryer for pine cones. The tumbling motion of the machine’s cylindrical chamber dislodges the seeds from the cones, and the seeds fall through openings in the cylinder to a receptacle below.
Next, the seeds are processed by the de-winger — another literally named machine that uses slapping leather flaps to bust the wings from the seeds.
“The reason they have a wing on them is if the cone’s still on the tree, and it opens up and the seed comes out, the seed will just whirlybird away from the tree,” Gilbert said while dropping a winged seed to demonstrate.
Finally, the seeds are run through other machines that clean them of clingy natural debris.
The clean seeds are sealed inside plastic bags and cardboard cylinders and placed in a big walk-in freezer at 5 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit — alongside 14,000 pounds of other seeds, mostly from national forests in the Rocky Mountain region — while a sample of the seeds is sent to a lab in Georgia. The lab workers analyze the quality of the seed crop to help Gilbert determine how many seeds he should drop in each cell of dirt when he plants them.
The lab analysis can take four to five months, so the seeds produced by last year’s Black Hills cone pickers could remain in the freezer until next year.
When Gilbert and his crew needed to plant trees for the Black Hills in March 2018, they pulled a 2015 crop of Black Hills seeds out of the freezer and planted about 153,000 seedlings.
The seeds were planted in squarish, Styrofoam containers with 112 small holes, each with space for about 6 cubic inches of dirt. The nursery grows some other trees in the ground, mostly for state conservation programs, but the national forests served by the nursery have better success with so-called “container trees.”
The Black Hills container trees were grown in two of the nursery’s greenhouses. From March to October, the seeds sprouted and grew into 6-inch-high, pine-needle-bearing seedlings.
Around the beginning of November, the seedlings were removed from their containers and packed in plastic bags and boxes, at a rate of 300 per box. The boxes of seedlings were then placed in a freezer at 26 degrees until last month.
“They just think it’s winter,” Gilbert said. “They don’t know any different.”
Several weeks ago, the boxes of trees were removed from the freezer and hauled by truck to the Jasper Burn area.
The seedling planters
Last month, a crew of 18 Mexican laborers under the employ of OC Forestry in Medford, Oregon, completed the final step in the long journey from pine cone to planted tree. Most of the laborers were migrants on temporary work visas, while the foreman was a Mexican-born U.S. citizen.
Walking across a roughly 400-acre area burned by the Jasper Fire, with heavy pouches full of seedlings affixed to their belts, the crew members paused every 10 feet or so. They used ax-like tools called hoedads to quickly scrape a small patch of grass down to the dirt. Next, they swung the hoedad to chop the earth, pry open a small hole, and drop the seedling in. After a quick tamp of the dirt with one foot, they walked away to plant the next seedling.
Planting as rapidly as one seedling every 10 to 15 seconds, members of the crew planted as many as 1,000 trees per person each day for two weeks until all 153,000 of the seedlings were in the ground.
Many of the seedlings were planted near the fallen trunks of dead trees for protection from harsh sun and weather, and the seedlings were also encased in biodegradable tubing to prevent damage by hungry wildlife drawn to the seedlings’ green needles.
Most of the seedlings will survive with favorable weather and adequate precipitation. If a drought ensues, many of them could die.
Because of the abundant storehouse of Black Hills seeds kept at the nursery in Nebraska, seedlings are planted almost every spring in the Jasper Fire area, even in years when no new pine cones are picked. Thriving young trees have begun to transform the landscape in some areas within the fire's footprint, including alongside Mud Springs Road, where a hillside full of seedlings planted seven years ago has grown into a grove of 3- to 4-foot-tall trees.
Blaine Cook, a longtime Forest Service silviculturist, stood gazing at that hillside during this spring's planting project and reflected on the Jasper Fire.
“It changed the forest and people’s lives,” Cook said, “for years and decades to come.”