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Forester’s commitment revived Bunker hill landscape

In the early 1970s, Kellogg’s bleak backdrop reminded Ed Pommerening of Vietnam.

Bare hills rising from the historic mining town bore an eerie resemblance to the napalmed jungles the young forester saw during his stint as an Army ranger.

Not a single tree, huckleberry bush or tuft of grass grew on the hillsides. Corrosive soil killed anything that sprouted.

The ruined landscape was the legacy of decades of emissions from the Bunker Hill Lead Smelter and Zinc Plant. When Pommerening was hired as the company’s forester, an executive told him, “You’re going to make all these hillsides green.”

Over the next 20 years, Pommerening replanted 7,000 acres of trees with the help of high school students, blanketing the hills with conifer seedlings.

The trees now are taller than he is, and the gradual return of thimbleberries, ferns and other underbrush is testament to the slow healing of the land.

Last week, Pommerening stood on the gravel road that leads to Wardner Peak, looking out over vigorous young stands of pine, fir and larch trees. Skiers riding Silver Mountain Resort’s gondola look down on the forest, which covers the hills like nubby, green fleece.

“It used to be that you could see the world from here, but now the trees block it,” Pommerening said with quiet pride.

For years, Pommerening worked at re-establishing the trees with a single-mindedness that meant late nights in the lab and long days in the field. He endured plenty of taunts, too.

Many local residents were openly skeptical of the reforestation effort. Pommerening couldn’t walk into a bar without hearing mocking asides.

“There was a whole pile of people who laughed at me. I was the dumb S.O.B. who thought he could grow trees on the hillside. If anything, it made me work a little harder,” he said. “To me, all we needed to do was to solve a problem, and I knew it could be done.”

Repeat forest fires had cleared the hillsides of timber. Smelter emissions kept new trees from taking root.

Bunker Hill’s stack released sulfur dioxide, which becomes sulfuric acid when it mixes with water. The soil also contained high levels of zinc, which stunts tree growth.

Pommerening planted his first test plot of seedlings in 1972.

“Within about two weeks, they were red and dead,” he said. “Between the zinc and the acid, we were burning up the roots.”

He took the problem to forestry professors and soil chemists at the University of Idaho, where he was a graduate student. Part of the solution came from a late-night error. After a weary Pommerening spilled a bag of phosphate fertilizer on a tray of young seedlings, growth rates took off. The heavy phosphate application neutralized the effect of zinc in the soil.

The soil’s acidity wasn’t as easily addressed. But by keeping the seedlings’ root zones below the top 14 inches of soil, where the sulfuric acid was concentrated, Pommerening was able to grow trees.

Within a few years, he and his student crews were planting hundreds of thousands of seedlings each year. The young trees were raised in the Bunker Hill Mine, where 70 degree temperatures and slightly elevated carbon dioxide levels created ideal greenhouse conditions. Mercury-vapor lamps provided high-intensity lighting.

For the first decade or so, locals remained a tough crowd. The tiny seedlings weren’t visible from the road, fueling doubts about the project’s success. But the teens on the planting crews saw the year-to-year growth in the seedlings. Eventually, the hillsides took on the dark sheen of evergreens.

Walter Hadley, the city of Kellogg’s planning administrator, helped replant Haystack Peak in the early 1980s. Climbing the hillsides with a 50-pound sack of seedlings belted around his waist got him in shape for high school football.

“It was tough work,” Hadley said. “Some of those slopes were 60 percent. If a rock slipped out from underneath your foot, it rolled downhill for a long time.”

But the pay was good – $8 per hour. And the work transformed the landscape.

“If you pull out the old photos, there’s a dramatic difference,” Hadley said.

The planting effort also helped re-establish healthy stands of white pine, Idaho’s state tree. An introduced blister rust had killed off millions of acres of white pine in the Idaho Panhandle over the past 80 years. Pommerening and his crews planted rust-resistant white pine seedlings, along with Douglas fir, ponderosa pine and western larch trees.

“I don’t know of any other place in North Idaho where white pine is that successful,” said Art Zack, a Forest Service silviculturist. “Put any knowledgeable forester in Silver Mountain’s gondola, and they’d be amazed at what they saw.”

Pommerening worked for Bunker Hill until the owners filed for bankruptcy. Later, contractors for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired him to continue the reforestation effort.

Most of the replanted acreage now belongs to the state of Idaho, with the exception of 1,000 acres that Pommerening and a partner bought for timberland. Another 560-acre section became Galena Ridge, Silver Mountain Resort’s new golf course, which opened last month.

Community respect for Pommerening grew with the trees.

Pommerening’s son, Seth, remembered his dad coming home from 12-hour days in the field, exhausted and filthy. But the taunts had disappeared.

“By the time I was in high school, people would stop me and say, ‘Are you the Pommerening boy? Tell your dad thank you.’ ”