Tucked into the Douglas fir and ponderosa pine forests of Northern Idaho sits the quaint lakeside town of Coeur d’Alene. The former lumber town is now a popular tourist destination drawing families from across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Gone are the pounding mills, replaced with fancy lakefront hotels and bustling shopping centers.

But it’s not hard to find relics of the region’s once-thriving industry: Huge logs chained together to form breakwaters protect marinas and lakeside restaurants scattered around Lake Coeur d’Alene—the region’s main tourist draw. In the sprawling Idaho Panhandle National Forest that nearly surrounds the town, century-old stumps the size of boulders rot beneath a canopy of trees that themselves seem a hundred or more years old. Both the stumps and the Forest’s now abundant trees provide clear evidence of a century of forest management that has played out in this quiet corner of America.

A short 10-minute walk from the box stores and fast food restaurants that skirt Coeur d’Alene’s edges is another example of how connected this small city is to the forests that surround it. Here, just off of an unassuming and ordinary street is the U.S. Forest Service’s Coeur d’Alene Nursery. Established in 1960, the Coeur d’Alene Nursery straddles the past, the present and the future on a 220-acre plot of land. A squat single-story building greets visitors who enter into a small lobby decorated with a few posters, some t-shirts and hats. Greenhouses, warehouses and fields, some fallow and some flush with small green trees, spread out behind the office, a tapestry of incongruous shapes and colors. An assortment of sheds, tractors, four wheelers and other custom-built contraptions rounds out the scene.

Aram Eramian, the nursery’s superintendent, leads me outside to learn about just how the nursery grows seedlings, grasses, forbs and other plants for reforestation efforts across the northern Rockies.

A Little Bit About Seeds

All trees produce seeds, and all seeds are meant to travel. Nut trees produce seeds inside of nuts—think oaks with their acorns, or walnuts, almonds or pistachio trees. Fruit trees, like apple, cherry, or coffee produce seeds inside of fruit. Because nuts and fruit are generally rich in nutrition, these seeds most often travel in the G.I tracts of unsuspecting animals. Other trees don’t rely on animals and produce seeds with their own built-in transport mechanisms. Anyone with maple trees in their yard has seen winged seeds (and raked winged seeds and cleaned winged seeds out of their gutter). The wings, in addition to delighting kids who toss them back into the air, are meant to catch updrafts, gusts and blusters and float their way to new habitat.

Coniferous or “evergreen” trees, like the Douglas fir, white pine, ponderosa pine and larch grown at the Coeur d’Alene Nursery, produce cones. These cones each hold hundreds of single-winged seeds, silently waiting until favorable conditions dry them out and send their seeds floating across the forest.

Dewingers, Scalpers and the Deep Freeze

So, it makes sense that our first stop is a large warehouse where the nursery mimics nature and dries out the cones. Aram explains how it all works: The cones are laid out in giant wooden kiln trays, each roughly 10 feet long by 4 or 5 feet wide, which are stacked and attached to a large gas-fired kiln. Warm air—between 105 and 110 degrees—circulates throughout the system for several days until the cones dry out and open, revealing their precious cargo.

Once they’re dried out, the cones are run through a tumbler, which separates out the seeds. From there, the seeds go to the “seed extractory” and the remaining cones are ground up for mulch. The seed extractor is a white cinder block building where a series of contraptions further extricates the seed from its protective coatings.

Up first is “the scalper,” which dispenses with large debris and bits of cone that weren’t removed in the tumbler. The second machine is the “dewinger” where the seed’s wings are removed. Following the dewinger, the seeds undergo two more separation processes before Aram and his staff are left with the “live seed,” a relatively small bit of biomass that belies the genetic potential it contains. The live seeds are then soaked in water for at least 48 hours, depending on the species, and finally stored at six degrees Fahrenheit in one of four giant walk-in coolers. This final treatment is designed to mimic the cold winters these seeds would experience in nature.

Aram explains that the machines the Forest Service uses to get from a green cone to a live seed are all adapted from grain processing equipment that was designed, quite literally, to separate the wheat from the chaff. The whole scene is a wonderful mix of homegrown, boot-strapped engineering processes mashed with hyper-intense tracking and quality control protocols. Throughout the entire seed extraction process, each batch of seeds is relentlessly tracked, monitored and stored so that its provenance is known at every step of the process. The tracking itself is analogue: Paper labels marking the source, date of collection, collector, and other relevant data are meticulously tracked from kiln to scalper to dewinger to storage freezer.

Regardless of its throwback qualities, it all works efficiently and smoothly. In 2016, Aram and his team processed 6,000 bushels of cones without error. It’s also incredibly valuable. Federal law requires the nursery to keep at least 10 years of seed stock for each species in its freezers. At current prices that translates to about $2.5 million worth of organized, catalogued seeds.

But where do all those cones come from?

The Cone Orchard

For an answer to that, I head to Plains, Montana. While Coeur d’Alene may be a quaint tourist town banking on a future of ever-increasing real estate prices, Plains is a ranching town that time forgot. Only an hour or so from Missoula, Plains rests in a wide spot the Clark Fork River carves through western Montana en route to Lake Pend Orielle, 50 miles north of Coeur d’Alene. The three-block downtown boasts a few bars, eclectic curio shops, an Ace Hardware and a predictable complement of real estate offices and banks. A gas station and a couple of mom and pop motels fill in the edges. Plains also boasts a microclimate conducive to growing conifer trees. 

So it was here in the 1991 that the Forest Service bought 120 acres of mostly flat farmland and started the Plains Tree Improvement Area, also called the Plains Tree Orchard. This facility and others like it (there are five scattered across Montana and Idaho alone, and yet more across the country), produce pretty much all the seeds the Forest Service uses to reforest millions of acres of our National Forests.

I meet Valarie Walker, the Lolo National Forest Genetic Resources Forester, and Elliott Meyer, the Genetic Resource and Silviculture Assistant, outside of the small shed that houses an office, kitchen, bathroom, and make shift laboratory—a few microscopes are scattered around the back room. Val and Elliott explain how it all works.

First off, the region this orchard serves stretches west from Great Falls, Montana all the way across the Idaho Panhandle and south to the Salmon River. It’s divided into two zones, red and blue, with an overlap zone in the center. The northern blue zone is wetter and colder than the red zone, which lies farther south. Although the same species of trees grow in each zone, they are adapted to the specific climatic conditions each zone offers, so it’s important to plant seeds that come from each specific zone. These divisions are just like gardening zones that help home gardeners determine if a plant can survive their local climate. The same is true with the elevational gradients that the region is divided into. Seeds from trees that grow at 4,000 feet don’t do as well if they’re planted at 7,000 feet.

I appreciate the details, but I press them for romantic stories about cone collectors traipsing through the woods and scaling the best looking trees to harvest their genetic material. Turns out, I’m disappointed. Gone are the days when Forest Service staff would wander the woods gathering cones from the perfect-looking ponderosa. Well, mostly gone. These days, the Forest Service does collect cones from very specific areas, certain elevations, or from “plus trees,” specimens that show a natural genetic resistance to disease or insect infestation or that grow particularly straight or large.

These “wild” cones are dried out at the orchard and their seeds are planted in carefully controlled tests, where they’re grown for a year or two. Each test batch is meticulously tracked so that managers are always aware of precisely which zone and elevation the seeds came from. A series of trials further separates the healthiest and most resistant seedlings from their siblings that don’t fare as well, and the best of the best are eventually planted in the orchard for field trials. Once the field trials are complete, managers collect scion material from these “Elite Trees” and graft those scions onto mature root stock in the orchard.

It’s a complicated, science-intensive process that began as a response to the white pine blister rust disease that plagued the valuable western white pine tree nearly 60 years ago. While most white pines succumbed to the disease, some showed a genetic resistance to the blister rust. So the Forest Service began collecting cones from those trees in an attempt to create an orchard of blister-resistant trees. Now, decades later, the progeny from those rust-resistant white pine trees are once again thriving across eastern Idaho and parts of western Montana.

The success of the white pine program encouraged managers to try similar processes for the other conifers native to the region. Two other rust diseases were incorporated into the studies along with tests for cold hardiness and drought tolerance. Now the orchard stands as testament to the program’s overall success.

You wouldn’t know that the trees at the Plains Orchard are the best of the best by looking at them. Many are topped and their awkward canopies spread out in Seuss-like fashion. It’s a function of the fact that they’re in an orchard. Shorter trees make harvesting cones easier; they’re easier to irrigate and easier to manage generally. But the cones they produce all contain the genetic material from the best performing seedlings cultivated and tested over decades. As we wander around the orchard, it becomes clear that this is a great spot for tree nerds looking to burnish their identification skills.

Over here are the larch trees with their wispy needles. In that plot, orange-red hued ponderosa trunks reach for the sky. On the other side of the orchard, nearly obscured by some late season weeds are small whitebark pine trees, only a foot or so tall. Upon closer inspection, these saplings have cones on them, something that wild whitebark pine trees don’t produce until they’re roughly 80 years old. Whitebark pines are a key high-elevation species and a source of food for bears and birds. The white pine blister rust has seriously impacted whitebark pines across their range. Producing rust-resistant cones in a short timeframe is critical to saving the species from extinction and these diminutive trees are proof that it can be done. Val and Elliott explain that through grafting, they’re able to “trick” these saplings into thinking that they’re 100-year-old trees with all the wisdom and experience needed to produce cones of their own. Thanks to the rigorous testing and to the tracking they employ, Val and Elliott know that these cones are resistant to blister rust, and they know exactly where they came from. (See the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Your National Forests for an article fully explaining the whitebark pine program.)

The orchard’s roughly 8,000 trees are divided into 25 neat plots, each the right distance from the others to avoid cross-pollination and inbreeding. Metal placards nailed into the trees provide instant access to critical identification information. Three miles of six inch wide irrigation pipe snake between the plots, stretching across freshly mowed grass.

It’s a tidy operation, both in practice and in concept. The orchard is a productive trove of valuable genetic material that has taken decades to cultivate. It’s also efficient.

As Val and Elliott show me around, it’s clear that producing cones in an orchard is far more cost and time effective than my dated vision of wandering the forest in search of cones. Wild trees don’t produce good cone crops each year. Pollination isn’t guaranteed in the wild, and inbreeding is an issue. Importantly, the orchard isn’t genetically modifying trees; rather Val and Elliott and other orchard managers are selectively breeding trees to produce the best available genetic stock for our forests. That there are only two full-time employees, Val and Elliott, and a couple of retired locals who help with watering and mowing is further proof of the orchard’s efficiency.

We wander back to the barn where burlap sacks filled with green cones are arranged on long shelves. Each sack has a paper label describing its contents. They’re the same burlap sacks that get emptied onto the kiln trays in the Coeur d’Alene nursery, a couple hundred miles away in Idaho. I ask Val if they get a lot of visitors; they don’t and it’s easy to see why. I’ve driven past this orchard dozens of times and never knew it existed. There is no sign on the highway, no Yelp review to guide a tourist to this spot. But the lack of marketing belies its importance. These 25 plots hold decades of effort and precise scientific experimentation all aimed at producing the healthiest, most resilient, most productive forests in the world.

Like a Business

Back at the nursery in Coeur d’Alene, Aram takes me to a couple of the 24 different “growing environments” spread out across the nursery’s acreage. Most are modern greenhouses with networks of irrigation tubes and long rows of chest high tables. Neatly arranged Styrofoam containers overflowing with small seedlings cover the tables, awaiting their next watering or weeding cycle. These “containerized” seedlings grow for a year in the greenhouses before being transported to a forest. In the acreage outside of the greenhouses, neat rows hundreds of yards long sprout six- or eight-inch high seedlings of various species. These are the “bare root” seedlings that grow for two years before being “lifted” from the soil and transferred to a forest for planting.

The nursery only grows seedlings based on orders from Forest Service, BLM, or the Idaho Conservation Department. Aram explains that the nursery can’t sell seedlings to the public because it’s prohibited from competing with private nurseries. Nor does it receive money from Congress or directly from the Forest Service’s budget. It’s run like a business, with the cost of producing the seedlings factored into the “price” the agencies pay for their seedlings. If the nursery ends up making a profit, Aram invests that back into the operation, buying a new tractor or upgrading irrigation equipment.

When there’s a wildfire or a harvest operation, local silviculturists have to figure out how many seedlings they want, what zone and elevation those seedlings should come from, and whether they want bare root or containerized seedlings. Then they order them from Coeur d’Alene or one of the five other nurseries the Forest Service operates across the country.

Because Aram can’t sell “extra” seedlings to the public, he only sows seeds once an order comes in. That means it takes a year or two for the seedlings to arrive at the forest that ordered them. But there’s plenty of demand to keep the nursery’s 25 staff busy. In addition to processing thousands of bushels of cones a year, the nursery grows millions of seedlings—five million in 2017 alone. And it’s poised to grow even more. That’s a good thing, since the NFF is launching an aggressive campaign to plant 50 million trees across our National Forests in the next seven years.

I thank Aram for his time, and he heads back into the main office. I mill about, snapping a few photos and trying to absorb all of the information I’ve learned. It’s not easy. While the general concept is straightforward—the nursery separates seeds from cones and then stores or plants them—the intricacies of how they do that for five million seedlings a year on just 220 acres of land are far more involved. Add to that the decades of research, cultivation and methodical tracking that occurs at cone orchards like the one in Plains and the whole operation becomes a complicated dance between nature and human ingenuity.

I fold back into my car and head down the driveway, grateful for these professionals. Their work ensures that the trees planted on our National Forests are the healthiest they can possibly be and that they’re produced with a keen eye for efficiency and cost-savings at every turn. It helps assuage my disappointment that I’ll never land a gig spending the summer climbing trees on Montana’s National Forests, filling a burlap sack with cones from the tallest, widest, straightest trees I can find.

National Forest Foundation