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Tall order for Forest Service nursery

Dan Thrift/Tahoe TribuneWorkers lift ponderosa pines from the grow field at the Placerville Nursery on Thursday. The saplings will be planted in the Stanislaus and Tahoe national forests.
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PLACERVILLE — The large freezer doors slammed open.

The zero degree temperature inside sent cold air rushing into warm, creating a smoky effect. Inside, it smelled like oranges on ice, an aroma produced by boxes filled with seeds.

The frigid air keeps the millions of seeds frozen until they are planted at a nursery run by the U.S. Forest Service. Established in 1957, the Placerville Nursery grows saplings that range from giant sequoia to Jeffrey pines. National forests around the state plant the saplings on land ravaged by wildfire.



The oldest seeds in the freezer date back to 1964. They are Douglas fir seeds. Trees could still be grown from them, employees said.

Each box of seeds has a label that indicates which national forest its seeds came from, and from what elevation they were harvested. The specifics are important information because tree seeds adapt genetically to their environment.




They adapt to things like “the last frost, and the amount of rainfall and snow,” said Pat Trimble, nursery manager.

This week is a busy time at the nursery. It’s time to harvest 3 million trees, pack them in bunches of 50 and put them in cold storage. The bunches of small trees are kept in three-layer paper bags until the forest that ordered them is ready to plant the trees.

Most of the saplings grow for about seven months before they’re harvested. The harvesting can only happen in the winter, after the saplings have gone dormant. Only dormant trees can survive cold storage.

Seeds are planted in the spring. Nursery workers thaw the seeds by soaking them for two days. Then they are chilled for up to 90 days. The process mimics what would happen to a seed in the forest that drops from a cone and germinates, Trimble said.

The nursery grows 3 million trees a year with 17 full-time employees. The harvesting and packaging work is done by contract workers. Full-time staffers clearly have a passion for their jobs.

“We get to follow it through the whole process,” said Toni Orsi, biological technician at the nursery, where she has worked for 22 years.

“When newspapers report about fixing land damaged by forest fires, we know those trees are going to come from us. There’s a personal satisfaction. I don’t think the public knows what it takes to grow a tree.”

In the 1980s and early 1990s, demand was greater and the nursery grew 10 million to 15 million trees a year. Today, the Forest Service manages its land more strategically, doing less clear-cutting and leaving less room for saplings, Trimble said.

Saplings harvested Thursday will be shipped off to Stanislaus and Tahoe national forests. Some will be planted on land burned in the Star fire, which charred portions of the Tahoe and Eldorado national forests during summer 2001.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com


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