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Forest Service’s nursery marks 50th anniversary

Sun., Dec. 12, 2010

The U.S. Forest Service’s Coeur d’Alene Nursery is celebrating its golden anniversary this year and during the half-century it’s been in business, the men and women who work there have grown and shipped 715 million trees. That’s enough to cover 2,500 square miles, more than enough to blanket the entire state of Delaware in green.

That’s not to say that trees are the nursery’s only product or that those products are shipped to the East Coast. The facility, on the Rathdrum Prairie and now surrounded by Coeur d’Alene, also grows native grasses, shrubs, forbs and harvests seeds from cones – actually, any herbaceous materials that grow in Western forests.

Federal land management agencies in the West are the nursery’s principal customers. Its products are growing in Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, South Dakota, Arizona, California and Colorado.

The local nursery is one of six in the national forest system, and its heritage dates back nearly to the founding of that system in 1905.

Joe Myers, who has managed the Coeur d’Alene operation for 24 years, is versed in its history. He says that Elers Koch, then the Lolo National Forest supervisor, established the Northern Region’s principal nursery near Haugan, Mont., in 1909. He named it for the Savenac family of German immigrants who had homesteaded, then abandoned, the property.

Other smaller operations, called “ranger nurseries,” were in Trapper Creek, Mont., and Camp Crook, S.D. at that time.

The 1910 fires – at 3 million acres, the largest ever in our nation – destroyed the buildings and plant stock then growing at Savenac, but the Forest Service decided to rebuild it and consolidate all the region’s nursery operations there. By 1912 it was the largest Forest Service nursery in the nation.

Although it was productive, the Haugan operation had a drawback: The area is relatively cold with a year-round average of 43 degrees and thus the growing season is short.

So, in 1960, the Forest Service stopped planting there – although it remains government property and is on the national register of historic places – and moved its seed extraction machinery to Coeur d’Alene where the average high is 59 degrees and average low is 38.

The agency purchased 160 acres at the intersection of Atlas Road and Kathleen Avenue. It had been the site of three homesteads, established in 1894, 1907 and finally, in 1913 by Sarah S. Arendt who received a patent to the land and drilled a well. Her farmhouse, which she built in 1914, remains on the property and is occupied by a nursery employee.

Curiously, says Myers, that portion of Kathleen Avenue just outside the nursery gates is federal property, part of the original purchase. The government over the years has bought an additional 60 acres to bring it to its current size of 220 acres.

Also outside the fence and bordering Kathleen is a pollination garden planted by nursery staff. It consists of native plants grown at the facility plus a wild flower mix. That natural habitat is to attract insects including bees whose populations have been declining.

Myers says that, when the site was first contemplated as a nursery, the Forest Service feared that it was too far from Coeur d’Alene to attract workers.

That’s never been the case, he says. The current work force comprises 31 permanent employees and, at peak periods, an additional 60 to 70 who work for contractors on the site.

The trees it produces begin at the nursery as bare root and containerized seedlings grown from seeds that its personnel extract from cones. Those cones are harvested at the site where the young trees will eventually be planted, then sent to the Coeur d’Alene facility. That’s to ensure that the trees are adapted to the sites where they will grow.

Myers says the nursery has a 10-year supply of the cones, some 40 to 50 years old, but still viable since they’re kept in freezers.

The reason for the large seed inventory, he explains, is due to the frequency of cone crops and the fact they might be needed to reforest areas struck by fire, infested by insects or harvested.

Myers says he welcomes visitors who wish to tour the facility. And if you go, you might meet some interesting folks, including foresters and nursery specialists from Lebanon, Armenia, and Israel, Russia and China, all of whom have visited the nursery to learn how it’s done in Coeur d’Alene.

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