In Utah, restoring spruce forests one cone at a time

Seasonal workers climb tree after tree to collect seeds that will eventually help regrow forests, an effort that could bring the country closer to its climate goals


We explore how America defines itself one place at a time. Every fall, in a forest north of Moab, Utah, workers climb huge spruce trees, collecting cones that will become future forests.

MOAB, Utah – Blake Votilla looked down the 120-foot spruce. He attached suspenders with four-inch spurs to his shins and attached two large red plastic bags to his climbing harness. Reggaeton blasted from a portable speaker on his hip.

Then he kissed the tree with his gloved hands, sticky with the sap, raising his left leg first, driving the spur into the interstices of the bark to pull himself up.

Mr. Votilla, 30, was here in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, which covers swaths of Utah and Colorado and is known for its Engelmann spruce trees, as part of a federal program that engages contractors to climb trees and collect their cones. The seeds from the cones are sent around the country and are ultimately planted to regrow forests that have been decimated by wildfires or deforestation. These efforts have become more urgent at a time when the rate and intensity of wildfires have increased and the country is trying to meet ambitious climate goals.

“I think this is one of the most important things we can do right now,” said Patrick Murphy, forest ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service, “especially with all the large-scale fires that have been going on. and the backlog of reforestation is necessary.

This fall, I traveled to Manti-La-Sal from Moab, Utah, an outdoor mecca famed for its red rocks and canyons, to document the collecting 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 choose trees that are as close to what originally existed to help maintain the natural ecosystem. Workers move around, rotating through forests seasonally, similar to crop rotation.

During the harvest season, which usually lasts from July to October, pickers move into national forest land, where they can stay for free while they work. Every morning around 8:00 a.m., they head to their site for the day, collecting for eight or nine hours before sorting and counting the number of bushels they collect.

“I’m pretty disappointed if I only get four,” Mr Votilla said. “I have high standards.” He said he aims to collect six to eight bushels a day, although the exact number is hard to know until later when workers separate all the cones they have collected from the twigs and needles tied for get an accurate count.

Mr. Votilla, like many workers who spend their summers falling high in the trees, is used to this type of temporary work. He spends the rest of his year fixing motorcycles and organizing ski trips out of Jackson, Wyo.

David DeRoulac and his small team of pickers have worked for the Forest Service harvesting cones in the American West for nearly 20 years. He said his seasonal workers are paid by the bushel, usually averaging around $500 a day. Mr. 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 huge infrastructure development bill for Restoration”.

A version of this came in November 2021, when the REPLANT Act was passed as part of President Biden’s infrastructure bill. The act will increase funding from $30 million to $100 million, which will be used to reforest more than 4 million acres of land over the next 10 years.

Trees store carbon in the ground for hundreds of years, Murphy said. Scientists hope that “with more trees, more carbon will be retained”, he added, “countering the effects of greenhouse gases on the planet”.

But the US Forest Service said it had only been able to meet 6% of reforestation needs per year because the increased rate and intensity of wildfires, combined with a cap of federal spending, has created a backlog of areas to deal with.

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

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

“What’s scary is the escalation” Mr. Votilla once said over dinner at a restaurant in Moab, a treat when he goes into town to stock up. As he spoke, he pored over a high-calorie meal of pizza soppressata, fries and montanarine – an Italian fried dough dish. “All you see is the trunk and like a branch foot. You can’t tell if he’s dead or alive,” he continued. “So you have to constantly be careful and make sure there are green needles on it.”

And sometimes the threat comes from the ground. One day, Mr. Votilla said, “there were people doing target shooting and then a bullet whistled past my head. They had no idea I was in the tree.

To warn those below of his presence – whether hikers, cyclists or target shooters – Mr Votilla has taken to wearing the cylindrical speaker, covered in sap and needles of pine, with high volume.

Dead branches and targeted shooters aren’t the only dangers: Mr Votilla once fell into a nest of bald hornets and was stung five times before he could climb down.

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


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