Youth tree plant celebrates 28th year

An event known as "the youth tree plant" will celebrate its 28th year this week when about 900 children are expected to plant nearly 5,000 trees on Josephine County forestland.

The event will bring children from local public and private schools in Josephine and Jackson counties to the county's property off Stringer Gap Road. A parade of tractors will pull wagon loads of kids, teachers and parents to the planting site.

"I've seen as much as two tons of kids — I added it up — two tons of kids on one trailer," said Ross Roe, a retired local businessman whose persistence got the project rolling nearly three decades ago.

At a recent gathering with Grants Pass School District librarians, longtime volunteer Lee Webb showed photos from previous tree plants of happy students spending a half day in the woods learning about sustainable forestry, how trees grow and, of course, how to plant them. He was joined by Roe, Virgil Witcher, the county's forester in the early 1990s when the idea became reality, and Vic Harris, also a county forester.

"Virgil is the one I give credit to for putting the fun into the tree planting," Roe says. It was Witcher's idea to haul the kids on antique tractors from Central Point's Rusty Relics club.

As the planting went on, the sites for each year got farther and farther from where the buses could park.

"The kids were like a bunch of ducks — all in a row hiking along and hitting every mud puddle on the way," Witcher recalled, grinning.

He admitted he was dubious at the beginning. "I was really dragging my feet about the first one," he said.

He needed to find a location near enough to town that students could get there, do the plant, and get back to school in time for lunch or to catch the bus home.

The first one was on Walker Mountain, in the wake of a fire. They started with professional equipment, a Pulaski, which combines a hoe and an ax.

"We had kids like this," Witcher said, putting his hand about 3 feet high. "And they were dragging those things along."

Getting a hole deep enough for a seedling was way out of the question. "Even the parents did not make much more than 2-inch holes."

After that year, his crew used an augur to drill holes in advance, leaving the fun part of the project — the planting — to the kids.

He also realized that the students needed to be kept busy. They added a mesh tube over the tree and a paper mulch to each seedling's planting, simultaneously increasing the tree's chances of survival. And they settled on five trees per child as the optimum number.

Roe later added the idea of metal tags, which allows "ownership" of each tree for the participating children. Webb noted that children do return to find their trees with success.

The process finishes with a wash in Tecnu, in case the little hands contacted poison oak. (Another good life lesson.)

"In 28 years, there has never been an injury of a child at the tree plant," Roe noted.

When asked about funding the event, Harris said grants were available to help keep it going and also that the county's forests — about 30,000 acres — bring money into the county. Some of that is earmarked for the foresters and to keep replanting harvested or burned areas. Of course, most of those who make the event work are volunteers, Harris added.

Roe noted that Jackson County has no county-owned forests, having sold them over the years. That's why students from our neighboring county come here for the tree plant.

"We are the only tree plant of size left in Oregon," Roe said.

Classes from Manzanita, Sams Valley, Rogue River, Jewett and Riverside elementary schools, plus Brighton Academy will participate Thursday. Students from Redwood, Mae Richardson, Central Point, Parkside and St. Anne elementary schools will take part Friday.

On Saturday, various Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops are scheduled, as are students from 4-H.

The public is invited to come between 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Saturday with a child to plant a tree.

To get there from either New Hope Road or Demaray Drive/Jerome Prairie Road, take Stringer Gap Road and watch for signs.

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