Childhood tree-planting memories for thousands of kids
For decades after the Tillamook Burn, classes of schoolchildren were bused out to help replant. Today, thousands of Oregonians, on trips to the beach, can point to a thriving patch of forest and say, “We planted those trees.”
By Finn J.D. John — August 10, 2014
The fleet of buses glided through the ghost of a forest — a forest of silver snags, like millions of weatherbeaten masts of old sailing ships sticking up out of the earth. It was 1949, just ten years after the second Tillamook Burn had ravaged the land anew, and it was showing few signs of recovery on its own.
Which is precisely why these buses full of children from the James John Grade School in Portland were here: To do something about that — to help the land recover.
They would be meeting men from the Oregon Department of Forestry, who would hand out burly planting tools called hodags along with loaf-sized bundles of tiny Douglas Fir seedlings, bundled together in oiled paper. They would work all morning on their specially designated plot of once-and-future forest. They would learn about forest fire prevention, wildland ecology and the best practices known to science in 1949 about how to care for the green treasure that surrounded them — all the while seeing with their own eyes the consequences of neglect.
On their way out, they would pass other buses full of children from other schools, schools from all over the state. Each school’s team had its own patch of forest to replant, and took great pride in watching it grow.
For two generations of Oregon kids, a drive to the beach along certain sections of highway would always have a special meaning. All grown up now, with kids and grandkids of their own, thousands of them still turn to gaze at a certain patch of young forest, remarking to anyone in the car with them, “I helped plant that.”
Among all the schools that brought teams of students out to replant the Tillamook Burn, the students from James John Grade School set the record. From 1948 to 1973, 25 years, they came every year to spend the day planting trees — spending time outdoors, doing forestry work, learning what it is to be an Oregonian.
Making a new forest
The kids-planting-trees program was the brainchild of Arthur Priaulx, the public-relations man for the West Coast Lumbermen’s Association. And although the kids performed less than one percent of the tree plantings that were needed to re-seed the burn, the impact their efforts had went far beyond the new trees they left in the ground.
The push to replant the burn started during World War II, in 1943. State forestry officials knew the dead spar-pole snags that had been left in the wake of the 1933 Tillamook Burn were a disaster waiting to happen. They were, essentially, nearly half a million acres of well-seasoned firewood waiting for some careless idiot to flick a Chesterfield out the window of his car into the wrong clump of brush and start the whole Tillamook Burn going again. And, in fact, that had happened in 1939, and would again in '45.
Worse yet, the burned-again woodland was truly sterilized afterward. Except for a few die-hard plants like fireweed, it showed no signs of coming back to life. The first fire had spared some seed cones, which could repopulate the forest; the second fire took those freshly sprouted trees and incinerated them too, leaving nothing.
It was going to have to be re-seeded by hand. Or, alternatively, it could be left as a wasteland — but a wasteland that would burn fiercely every six years, creating massive and uncontrollable fires that would get hot enough to spread to previously unburned forestlands like a metastasizing cancer upon the land, threatening populated areas ... this was not a good alternative. Inaction was not an option.
In the waning years of the war, some owners of burned-over property led the way, planting thousands of seedlings in their charred plots of onetime timberland. Along the way, they learned a thing or two about replanting: when to do it, how closely to space the trees, how to protect the seedlings from the dreaded (and hungry) mountain beavers.
Then, in 1943, state forester Nels Rogers unveiled a plan of action. It would, of course, involve spending a tremendous amount of money on land that, for all anyone knew, might be blighted forever; but Governor Earl Snell appointed a committee, which recommended that the state go ahead with it.
Rogers’ plan involved, first, “fireproofing” the burn by cutting and clearing a series of firebreaks, threading thousands of miles of roads through it, beefing up fire lookouts and installing and filling strategically located water reservoirs. Next, the land would be sectioned off into parcels that would be managed as, essentially, tree farms; this was to be a working forest, not a park. Revenues from the tree farms, when they started coming in, would be divided between the counties, to which the land had escheated after the private owners quit paying property taxes, and the state, which was financing and coordinating the whole thing.
To finance Rogers’ plan, the state put a measure on the 1948 ballot, seeking bonding authority to get started. In one of Oregon history’s most surprising ironies, the measure failed in Tillamook County — the county that would most benefit from it. However, it passed by high enough margins elsewhere in the state that the measure passed — narrowly, but it passed.
And thus it was that, the following year, the blackened woodlands started to echo to the happy shouts of schoolchildren and the smack of hodags biting into the charred earth.
Of course, more than just a few crews of kids would be needed to seed 350,000 acres. Vast sections of it were seeded by air, as helicopters with big hoppers scattered thousands of pounds of tree seeds over inaccessible areas, along with rodent bait in an attempt to kill off the mice, voles and mountain beavers that would eat the seeds before they could sprout.
This worked in a few places. In places where it didn’t, crews of hired planters like the “Hoedads” of Eugene joined crews of convicts putting in day after day of grueling work, in soggy springtime drizzles and blazing afternoon sun, planting trees, by hand, one by one.
And in other parts of the state, armies of youngsters in forested areas collected sacks of pine cones to sell to the state, to keep the operation going.
It all came to a sort of a triumphant conclusion in 1973, when Governor Tom McCall — speaking from the stage at Owl Camp, the same place where the replanting efforts had started 25 years before — announced that the operation had been successfully completed, and that thenceforth the lands formerly known as the Tillamook Burn would be called the Tillamook State Forest.
For thousands of Oregon schoolchildren, it was a bittersweet thing. The Oregon kids who started school in 1974 — including, by the way, me, at Molalla Grade School — would never know the camaraderie and sense of purpose enjoyed by our slightly older classmates who had helped replant that forest, although we would occasionally hear them talk about the experience.
That experience may not have resulted in very many trees being planted, relative to the whole huge job. But that was never its ultimate purpose.
“In 1950 I had no idea that it would continue for 20 years and involve 25,000 youths and 2,500 adults,” said Donald W. Stotler of Portland Public Schools, at the end of the operation. “I gaze out at what is now a forest ... and feel confident we accomplished our original mission: Plant trees and grow citizens.”
(Sources: Lucia, Ellis. Tillamook Burn Country. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1983; Wells, Gail. The Tillamook. Corvallis: OSU Press, 1999)