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By Ed Moreth 

Crews work to produce better trees

Plains tree farm provides data for Forest Service


Ed Moreth

TIS THE PLANTING SEASON – Val Walker, the Plains Ranger Station senior Genetic Resources Forester, puts a new larch into the ground at the Plains Tree Improvement Area as seasonal worker Scott Palmer digs the holes for the trees.

It doesn't matter if it's a fire, a drought, beetles, or some type of disease, it's the role of the Plains Ranger Station's Genetic Restoration Program to keep the woods from disappearing. That's where Val Walker comes in and her 2018 season is just getting started.

Walker, the senior Genetic Resources Forester in Plains, and her staff are responsible for making sure there are trees for the future by caring for the 123-acre Plains Tree Improvement Area (TIA), nicknamed the "tree farm," along Highway 200 just west of Plains. The Plains Ranger District cares for six different species of trees from saplings to mature ones, including Ponderosa pine, whitepine, western larch, Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, and whitebark pine.

A contracted crew from DBA Roan & Associates of Hamilton began the season in March by cutting off the tops of an estimated 2,000 trees to keep the trees from growing too tall, making it more manageable to collect the cones from them each year. The team of two – David Deroulhac and Austin Waisanen – spent a week cutting treetops of trees from about eight feet to 18 feet tall, according to Walker.

Tree topping was only part of the work the Forest Service needed to accomplish during a short window of opportunity in the spring.

"We do the topping and planting while the trees are dormant to put less stress on the trees. The combination of the trees being dormant and the Tree Improvement Area being accessible result in a narrow window for topping," said Walker, who's been with the Forest Service for 29 years, has a master's degree in forest genetics from the University of Idaho and a bachelor of science degree in forest resource management from the University of Montana.

Springtime is also a time for the crew to plant new trees, which this year took only one day because they only had about 200 trees to plant, mostly western larch, along with a few ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

The trees, which ranged from about 10 inches tall to 3 feet high, were planted by Walker, Elliott Meyer (a culturist and Walker's assistant), and seasonal workers Terry Traver and Scott Palmer, both of Thompson Falls. The number and species of trees planted in the Plains TIA varies, but Meyer said they average between 250 to 700 trees annually.

"We don't like to plant trees until the soil starts to warm up some, so that as the trees start coming out of dormancy their roots will start to grow before the tops of the trees wake up," Walker said. "This puts them in a better energy balance for the growing season," she added.

The system for planting new trees is precise and planned out on a data-based spreadsheet. A marker with detailed information about the incoming tree is placed at the spot where it's to be planted. Walker gets the trees from the Forest Service's Coeur 'd Alene Nursery, the sole nursery serving northern Idaho and all of Montana.

Research for the Forest Service's Region 1 started in the 1950s and eventually became more focused on the genetics of each species, according to Walker. The Forest Service purchased the land along Highway 200 for the TIA in 1991. The goal of the Genetic Resources Program is to provide improved seeds to restore and reforest public lands after a disturbance, such as fire, or timber harvest. It's basically a circle of life for the Forest Service, serving as a "clone bank" to protect the more valuable trees as part of gene conservation, said Walker. The Plains Ranger District collects seeds from the TIA and transports them to the Coeur d'Alene Nursery, which grows trees that are either sent out to be planted directly on public lands or they provide grafted saplings to Walker for the TIA, which produces seeds back to the nursery.

"The whole idea of this program is to produce better seeds that turn into better trees," said Walker, who added that the seeds are taken from trees of the best genetic traits. The seeds collected in Plains are also used toward reforestation throughout Montana.

"The program also promotes adaptability of ecosystem functions as conditions change. Drought tolerance and cold hardiness, along with insect and disease resistance and growth traits are included in our tests," she said.

Ed Moreth

TREE SNIPPING – Austin Waisanen, a contractor with the Plains Ranger District, cuts the top of a tree at the Plains Tree Improvement Area while David Deroulhac prepares to snip the top from another.

The Plains TIA is divided into 23 sections of some 8,000 trees that range from year-old saplings to 20-footers that are 120 years of age. Data is kept on each tree, such as where it came from, elevation, and directions to its "mother" tree. Most of the trees are grafted at the Coeur d'Alene Nursery, which means the root stock and bottom of the tree could be only a couple of years old, but the top part might be 25 years old, said Meyer. The trees are normally planted about 20 feet apart, although some are done in pairs only inches apart from each other in case one dies. In the event they both survive, one is cut out. Walker said they have 15 miles of irrigation throughout the tree farm. March is the start of the busy time of year for Walker and her crew. During the summer months, seasonal workers maintain the grounds by mowing, weeding, watering and trimming, and Walker visits the area on a weekly basis.

August and September brings another small window when they collect the cones destined for the Coeur d'Alene Nursery. The cones need to be taken from the trees prior to falling on the ground, where they open up. The crew retrieved 90 bushels of cones last year, but in 2016, they fetched 160 bushels of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and larch.

Walker said the TIA is an important part of the Forest Service mission, which is a custodian of the forest.


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