In Utah, spruce forests are being restored cone by cone

Spruce cones collected in Utah are used to reforest areas across the country affected by wildfires and deforestation.

(Hilary Swift | The New York Times) David DeRoulac looks at the inside of a pine cone in Moab, Utah August 29, 2022. Seasonal workers climb tree by tree to collect seeds that will eventually help regrow forests, an effort there could be, the country is closer to its climate goals.

Moab, UT • Blake Votilla stared up at the 120 foot spruce tree. He attached braces with 4-inch spurs to his shins and attached two large red plastic bags to his harness. Reggaeton blared from a portable speaker on his hip.

He then hugged the tree with his gloved hands, sticky with sap, lifting his left leg first and driving the spur into the cracks in the bark to pull himself up.

Votilla, 30, was here in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, which stretches across parts of Utah and Colorado and is known for its Engelmann spruces, as part of a federal program that hires contractors to climb the trees and their cones to collect. The cones’ seeds are shipped across the country and eventually planted to regrow forests that have been decimated by wildfire or logging. These efforts have become more urgent at a time when the frequency and intensity of wildfires has increased and the country is trying to meet ambitious climate goals.

“I think that’s one of the most important things we could do right now,” said Patrick Murphy, a forest ecologist with the US Forest Service, “especially with all the big fires that are going on and the backlog in reforestation that is.” necessary.”

(Hilary Swift | The New York Times) Visitors take pictures of the Manti-La Sal National Forest as a cone picker works in the distance on August 30, 2022 in Moab, Utah. Seasonal workers climb tree by tree to collect seeds that will eventually help regrow forests, an effort that could bring the country closer to its climate goals.

This fall, I drove to Manti-La Sal from Moab, Utah—an outdoor mecca famous for its red cliffs and canyons—to document the collection process. The forest is one of many areas in the western United States where cones are collected. When trees are replanted after a wildfire, officials typically select trees that are as close as possible to what was originally there to help preserve the natural ecosystem. Workers travel and rotate seasonally through forests, similar to crop rotation.

During harvest season, which usually lasts from July to October, pickers set up camp on National Forest land where they can sleep for free while they work. Every morning around 8am they go to their location for the day and pick for eight or nine hours before sorting and counting the bushels collected.

“I’ll be pretty disappointed if I only get four,” said Votilla. “I have high standards.” He said he aims to collect six to eight bushels a day, although the exact number won’t be known until later, when workers separate any collected cones from the twigs and needles attached to them to reveal a to get an accurate count.

Like many of the workers who spend their summers and fall high up in the trees, Votilla is used to this kind of temporary work. He spends the rest of his year repairing motorcycles and guiding ski tours out of Jackson, Wyoming.

David DeRoulac and his small team of pickers have worked for the Forest Service for nearly 20 years harvesting cones throughout the American West. He said his seasonal workers are paid a bushel, typically averaging about $500 a day. DeRoulac is passionate about the need for this work: “We need a Manhattan project for the environment here in the west,” he said, “like a giant infrastructure development bill for restoration.”

A version of this came in November 2021 when the REPLANT Act was passed as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. The law will increase funds from $30 million to $100 million that will go towards reforesting over 4 million acres of land over the next 10 years.

Trees trap carbon in the soil for hundreds of years, Murphy said. Scientists hope that “more carbon will be held with more trees,” he added, “to counteract the impact of greenhouse gases on the planet.”

But the US Forest Service said it was only able to meet 6% of its annual reforestation needs because the increased rate and intensity of wildfires, combined with a state spending cap, has created a backlog of land to clear.

“There’s so much work to be done,” DeRoulac said, adding that planting trees is “the biggest thing you can do right now” to help fight climate change.

(Hilary Swift | The New York Times) Blake Votilla climbs a spruce tree and collects cones to be replanted to help restore forests decimated by wildfires on August 30, 2022 in Moab, Utah. Seasonal workers climb tree by tree to collect seeds that will eventually help regrow forests, an effort that could bring the country closer to its climate goals.

The work can be risky and requires pickers to move slowly. Climbing a tree can take anywhere from 10 minutes to nearly an hour, then another three hours in the tree to harvest.

“The scary thing is the climbing,” Votilla said one day over dinner at a Moab restaurant, a treat when he goes into town to get supplies. As he spoke, he hunched over a high-calorie meal of soppressata pizza, french fries and montanarine — an Italian deep-fried dough dish. “All you see is the trunk and about a foot of branch. You can’t tell if it’s dead or alive,” he continued. “So you have to be constantly watching and making sure there are green needles on them.”

And sometimes the threat comes from the ground. One day Votilla said, “There were people shooting at targets, and then a bullet whizzed past my head. They had no idea I was in the tree.”

To warn those below of his presence – whether hikers, cyclists or sport shooters – Votilla carries the cylindrical speaker, covered in resin and pine needles, at high volume.

Dead branches and archers aren’t the only dangers: Votilla once encountered a nest of bald-faced hornets and was stung five times before he could climb down.

“I rapped and hit it, and I was surrounded by hornets,” he said. He said he descended so quickly that he burned part of his rope. But the experience did not deter him. The next morning he was back in the forest, ready to be picked.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. In Utah, spruce forests are being restored cone by cone

Justin Scacco

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