Orange Tour: Bringing the Forest to the Trees

06/25/2011 at 8:04 am Leave a comment

Sid and Nancy Johnson at their home outside Baker City.

On Sid and Nancy Johnson’s land in northeastern Oregon it rains less than 10 inches annually on average. Even in a wet year, by June their dirt road turns to a dust storm each time a visitor comes to pass. Fine dust begins accumulating on the leaves of the juniper, lupine and sage that grow in the alkaline soils along the road’s shoulders in spring and remains until late fall when the first snows come. It’s dry country.

That didn’t stop Sid from planting 70 acres of  mid-elevation hillside with more than 7,000 evergreen trees. Trees that need water in quantities greater than the spare rainfall that occurs naturally.

“We had talked about moving from town up here and building a house, but Nancy said she really wanted at least one tree for shade in the yard,” says Sid. “That got me going.”

The Johnsons had built two holding ponds fed by Alder Creek on the land in the first few years they acquired ownership. Sid planted a few small pines along their banks so their roots could tap into the moisture.

“I wanted them to be able to get their feet wet,” he says. He also spent the first summer they were planted hauling buckets full of water  to the trees every couple weeks. The trees survived, and a spark was lit.

Sid began planting more trees. He purchased a small irrigation pump to help facilitate watering. He planted more trees. Bought a bigger pump. Planted more trees farther from the house, higher on ridges. The pump wouldn’t reach. That didn’t stop him.

“It’s really only the first few years that the trees need a significant amount more water,” he says. “I sat there thinking, ‘What can I do to bring more water to the trees?'”

Sid, with his family, owns a construction company in Baker City, Ore. The company had several sheets of reclaimed metal roofing from a building site on-hand. Sid looked at those sheets, looked at his trees, and built himself a simple, non permeable rain collector that funneled rain to the saplings roots. Then he looked at the piles of old carpet also reclaimed from building sites. He cut squares of the shag, put slits in the middle, and placed it around the base of the young trees to act as weed suppression, and as a barrier against water loss in the arid air. Then the deer came. Sid’s young trees were often the only green spots on an otherwise muted landscape. Sid built protective cages for his trees out of the concrete enforcement wire left over from commercial construction jobs. The trees thrived.

Young Ponderose pine with rainwater collector

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Bob Parker, OSU Extension Forestry and Natural Resource Agent in Baker City. “I have a system on my land that Sid gave me, that’s the only other one I’ve seen.”

Throughout their life in Baker City the Johnsons had been involved in their community, operating on commissions, boards, and for organizations focused on topics ranging from youth development to civic engagement, but the trees sparked something more in them. They got involved with Extension’s small woodlands group and the Oregon Association of Small Woodlands Association. They were instrumental in providing support for Extension forestry in the county, and now call Bob an adopted family member.

They currently grow more than seven different species of tree on the property, mostly Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. They have six acres of rain forest (the sites that incorporate rainwater collection using panels) spread across 16 different locations on their land. The first trees planted in these areas are now eight years old and thriving.

To maintain family ownership of the land through the generation, the Johnsons have set the property up as an LLC tree farm, and Sid says he plans to keep planting trees.

“He blames it all on me,” says Nancy with a grin.

This post brought to you by The Orange Tour.

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