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Last Updated:
Apr 21st, 2005 - 21:10:55 


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Voices of the Northwest

Three Dollar Hammers

A Hoe-down for Government Hoedads

By Norm Maxwell

Posted on Feb 28, 2003

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It has been an exciting week hanging out with a Mexican tree planting crew. The old Coast Range Resource Area has over one hundred acres that need planting that were burned in last summer's Siuslaw Fire.

Monday morning and I am waiting in the darkness by the tree cooler on Seneca Street, waiting for my crew to show up. A dozen vans and crew cab pickups come and go taking hundreds of thousands of tree out to the unit while I cool my heels. Finally a battered white Dodge crew cab shows up and Ramon and half a dozen planters from Salem pile out.

We huddle and decide how many trees to take to our first unit and the people form a human chain and hand a mix of 6,000 Douglas firs, red cedars, hemlock and incense cedar in paper bags and waxed cardboard boxes to Ramon the Chigon as he stacks them in the back of the rig. I pull the cord that shuts the doors to the cooler as Noi, the lead man, ties a tattered reflective tarp over the load and we head west out of Eugene for the 31 acre unit .

The pavement ends and the old Dodge looks like a remake of Grapes of Wrath in the dawn's early light, crowded with seven people and the full load of trees. The ragged tarp flaps in the breeze. Dennis is driving our lead BLM pickup and it rapidly pulls ahead on the grade. We wait at intersections until the crew catches up until we pull up on the dead end of the landing.

The crew jumps out to survey their new unit. "Coulo Diablo!" (Devil's Asshole) Enrique dubs the steep and deep burnt canyon "we" are about to plant. Now comes the unspoken question as to what sort of inspectors Dennis and I are. Will we be landing lizards and sit in the pickup? Or the kind that follows a crew and makes sure no short cuts are taken? I put on my calf high White cork boots as the crew fills a tub with water from plastic blitz cans to dip the tree roots in. This makes them heavier to carry so an inspector watches this process like a hawk.

I instruct the crew to load the bag they wear around their waist with mostly firs but to take a handful of hemlocks and one man will plant mostly red cedar in the creek bottom. The hardier incense cedar will be planted on the western aspect slopes where they will hopefully survive the long hot days of summer. The planters hoist their heavy treebags high onto their waists and cinch them down while shouldering paper bags filled with 120 dipped trees and trudge down a scorched ridge to the bottom of Coulo Diablo.

I tote two bags of dipped trees tied to my shovel like a suitcase and half a bag around my waist in a borrowed treebag. This gets the crew's attention. Not many inspectors are willing to play pack mule. Dennis carries trees too. We stop about fifty horizontal yards above the creek and the crew sets down their paper bags. We can see now that there is enough water in the creek to dip trees in for the next run.
"Seedling" courtesy of Hoedads

Antonio takes the lead and plunges his planting shovel into the ground with his foot and rocks it back and forth until the soil breaks and then slips a vibrant, green fir seedling into the hole and stamps the earth closed. Octavio picks a spot 10 feet away and does the same. I assume the position as El Cid de la Stumpo (the Stump Lord) on a blackened old growth stump, leaning on my shovel. The planters plant in a loose formation, moving to the lowest corner of the unit before Ramon hollers "Patrass!" (take it back) and everybody reverses and moves back on their line. I start digging trees to make sure the roots were planted correctly. When I am through I replant the tree so it is deep in the ground and pointing straight up. The planters can tell that I have done this a few times. When they reach their paper bags, they carefully remove the dripping trees and pack them in their treebags. They pack the ones Dennis and I toted too.

I am still wearing my half bag. Now they all plant one line up the steep slope to the rig, far, far above. The February sun comes over the big trees to the south as I burn the paper bags in a pile on bare ground. We miscalculated and the crew runs out of trees before reaching the road and we all deadhead the last 70 yards.

The crew drags out the traditional propane ring and warms up pans of beans and rice and things and rolls it up in tortillas. I sit in the rig and eat cold sandwiches and read the local paper. In a few minutes Ramon cracks the whip and the planters pour more water in the container and dip more trees.

Tomorrow we will pack dry bags down to the creek and start there. Nobody who has not abused themseves with commercial tree planting can possibly understand the effort it takes to plant big trees on a crew in rugged terrain. The heavy treebag cuts into your waist and your hands become engrained with dirt. The pay is lousy with all the cutthroat competition for planting contracts. If you have landing lizard inspectors, you can skip ground and space the trees a little wider but that isn't the case here.

The only thing the crew has going for it is that it isn't raining. Oops, here comes the rain. The crew loads up again and we descend the ridge, sliding on the fresh glaze of mud. I find a poorly planted tree and holler "Inspector no es contendo!" My limited Spanish can cover any tree planting situation. Antonio is 18 years old and a master planter. He senses where there is rock and drives his shovel into dirt every time. While he is planting one tree he is looking ten feet away where he will plant the next. He is almost twice as fast as the rest of the crew. I time him and he plants a tree every ten seconds on the steep slope. I make it a habit to give him the trees I pack when he runs low.

The 31 acre unit we are planting had been covered with 12 to fifteen foot tall firs from a previous plantation after logging. The fire wasted them but we can see that they hadn't survived everywhere on the harsh west aspect slopes. I am hoping the incense cedar will.

The planters sing Mexican country western songs and clink and clank amongst the wet rocks. Dennis is new at tree planting inspection but it isn't rocket science. The most important thing for an inspector is to be there. If the inspector doesn't care, there is no reason anybody else should. I tell Ramon the old joke: I buy hammer handles for 2 dollars and hammer heads for 2 dollars and assemble them into complete hammers and sell them for three dollars--and you know what? It beats planting trees. He doesn't get it. Oh well.

The crew is planting exactly like I want now so I fall in behind and plant a few trees with my fire fighting shovel. I bang the blade on a handy stump when it muds up. The crew hasn't seen an inspector plant very often. This will be something to tell their friends. If the planters do not plant all the trees, they will have to drive back to the cooler and return the trees. This will make their long day even longer. They are working close to the top now and I carry trees to Antonio, the tree planting machine. "No mas pinos!" somebody hollers and they all troop to the crummie on the landing and throw their tools in the back and collapse on the seats. Ramon will drive the long trip to Salem.

"Six, at the cooler, manana," I tell him.


Tomorrow we will work the far side of the canyon of "Coulo Diablo."

Norn Maxwell is a writer, BLM forest firefighter and rural preservationist. Visit:
Old Men and Fire

A Song of the Open Road

Remember Fire Road

For more background visit :

Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United)

For more stories on tree-planting see:
Wild Women of the Woods Photos by Loraine Baker and Friends
Half & Half Hoedads by Loraine Baker
Hoedads Celebrate Reforestation History by Roscoe Caron

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