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Pickin' seed; you have to be a little squirrelly to do this, but it's the first step in ensuring the genetic superiority of the trees of the 21st century.

One breezy summer afternoon, I was swaying gently back and forth in the top of a 120-foot yellow pine, counting out a half bushel of glistening, thorny cones. A rancher rode up, spotted my rope dangling near the ground, and yelled, What are you doing up there, sonny-are you crazy?" I shouted down yes to the second question and told him he would have to wait until my feet were on the ground to hear the answer to the first. He waited, and this is what I told him:

The practice of collecting tree seed in the Pacific Northwest began in 1909 when the Wind River Nursery, located in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington, was established. Its purpose was to help reforest the more than 63,000 acres of national forest that had been devastated by the 1902 Yacolt Burn. Today Region Six, which encompasses all of Washington and Oregon, has three nurseries and a tree-improvement center, the only one of its kind in the U.S. Forest Service.

The tree-improvement program is a comparative newcomer, begun in 1978 when field foresters were advised to select, mark, map, and register the locations of trees with genetically superior characteristics. Fast growth and ideal form are the main considerations; others include resistance to frost, insects, and disease; cone production; and the ability of a tree to "prune itself." Nobody seems to mention this, but for practical reasons, it also helps if a tree is near a road.

The rancher was still listening, so I pushed my luck. "Ever wonder," I asked, "why some trees around here have a two-foot band of orange paint around them, as well as an 18-inch shiny squirrel band and a silver tag with an 11-digit number? Well, those are the 'stud' trees we select as part of the largest, most ambitious tree-improvement project in the history of reforestation. And if anyone's caught cutting, debarking, or marring a select tree, it's a federal offense."

My audience emitted a more or less bucolic snort.

Next I explained the mapping and registering business. The mapping is simple-just determine on the district map the tree's township and range, section number, azimuth, slope, and elevation, and then place a dot indicating its more or less exact location (usually right next to a road).

In order to register a tree, you must assign some kind of number to it-thus the 11-digit number. The first three digits refer to the species. For example, Douglas-fir is 202. The next five digits designate the breeding zone, and the last three are the tree's individual number. I had just finished picking tree 122-14014-037.

"Well, okay," the rancher said, "but what do you do with all those cones?"

Where they end up, I told him, depends on why I'm collecting. If I'm picking for tree improvement, the cones are destined for the Dorena Tree Improvement Center in the Umpqua National Forest near Cottage Grove, Oregon.

The cones are tagged with information about the species, elevation, date, slope, location, and breeding zone. This data helps ensure that seedlings grown from these particular seeds are eventually planted in the vicinity in which they were collected, maximizing their chances of survival.

After the tree-improvement cones arrive at Dorena, they are stored in sheds or dried in kilns, and rolled in tumblers until the seeds drop out. The seeds are then dewinged, cleaned, tested for germination, and stored in refrigerated coolers at 0 degrees Fahrenheit and at a relative humidity of less than 8 percent. Thus stored, the seed will be viable for as long as 30 years, depending on species.

The seed stored at Dorena is used in two ways. One project creates seed-orchard plantations, which are the meat and potatoes of the tree-improvement program. These orchards will provide, down the years, seeds from genetically superior parent trees -seeds that. will be available for planting on public lands sometime during the first half of the 21st century.

The other use for Dorena-stored seed is in creating evaluation plantations. In these plantations, set up near the original collection points, the seed is tested for growth and the decision is made whether or not to include a particular batch in the program.

As I pause to pull some pitch out of my hair, I get a quizzical look and a question: "Back up a bit, young fella. You said you had different reasons for pickin' seed. What are the others?"

Oh, yes. Sometimes I pick for reforestation purposes only, and that seed goes to either the Ben Pine Nursery in Bend, Oregon, or the Wind River Nursery in Washington. At those reforestation nurseries, seed storage and record keeping are similar, but there's no selective breeding going on there. When a specific area is scheduled to be reforested, the seeds for the job are requested by one of the region's nurseries two to three years prior to the planting.

In the spring, the seeds are stratified-that is, soaked and softened-in preparation for sowing. They are then sown in carefully prepared beds. The trees grow for two seasons (or occasionally one or three) before they are lifted for planting. These seedlings are used for plantings on national forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, Indian reservations, and state lands.

I am proud of myself for having recited all those facts, and the rancher seems rather sated himself. Then he says: "Why don't you just do like we did as kids-take the seeds from the squirrel caches? That way, you wouldn't have to risk your neck?"

"Because that way," I replied, coiling my rope and eying the next monster I had to climb, "I wouldn't have such a good story to tell my grandchildren."
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Author:Sherwood, Dan
Publication:American Forests
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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