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This Idea Takes Root--a Seedling Giveaway

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Officials of the Angeles National Forest gave away about 2,800 cedar and pine seedlings to anyone willing to care for them Sunday to prevent the infant trees from falling victim to the region’s continuing drought.

The foot-tall trees were supposed to be planted last winter as part of the forest’s annual reforestation program. But officials in the area’s Tujunga District said they stopped the planting because of drier-than-normal soil.

Amateur gardeners, although they expressed concern about the drought, seemed delighted by the prospect of obtaining free trees. Three species were available--incense cedar, Coulter pine and Monterey knobcone pine. All are shade trees that could grow to be 40 to 50 feet tall.

“I think this is an excellent idea,” said Sharon Chang, who took five incense cedars for her Newhall retirement community. “Otherwise they would croak off. I mean, they might anyway, but at least we’ll try.”

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Sabrina Keen, a forest resource assistant who organized the giveaway, said about 40 cars an hour pulled up to the Tujunga district’s headquarters on Little Tujunga Canyon Road between 8 a.m. and noon. Keen was planning to give away trees all day.

“People were here at 7:30" in the morning, she said. “The response has been tremendous.”

Early in the day, the district limited the giveaway to five trees per person, but in the afternoon the limit was raised to a dozen.

The Tujunga district, one of five in Angeles National Forest, normally plants between 20,000 and 30,000 trees each winter, usually in late February and throughout March, when in most years it is cool and rainy and the ground is moist.

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But as drought conditions have persisted over the course of four planting seasons, fewer seedlings have survived their crucial first year, forest officials said.

Jesse Yarbrough, the Tujunga district’s fire management officer, said he sees “an awful lot” of dead seedlings on his tours of the forest, and he estimated that 40% of the 21,000 seedlings planted in the district this winter will die by midsummer because of lack of rain.

As a result, Yarbrough said, the forest will look less green and the danger of fire will be greater. In addition, he said, the drought brings a vicious cycle of destruction--enhancing the chance and magnitude of fire, and then diminishing the survival rate of seedlings planted to replace those trees that have burned or otherwise died.

Keen said the Forest Service relies solely on rainfall to irrigate the newly planted seedlings because it is too expensive to install temporary watering systems and because hand-watering is too labor-intensive. She said she hoped that private owners would water the seedlings regularly.

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Danny Groves, a customer service agent for Delta Airlines, said he planned to expand his Canyon Country garden with the five trees he was taking home and help his mountainous community at the same time.

“I love the mountains and my side of the canyon is real dry,” he said as he scooped potting soil with used coffee cans. “I’m dedicating a section of a hill to pine trees.”

Derwood and Pat Doyle drove from Acton to add five free trees to the other 142 they have already planted on their two acres.

“I don’t think people realize what they do for us, not to mention their aesthetic qualities,” Pat Doyle said of the trees. “People laughed at me when I first planted some cottonwoods that came from cuttings. But now they shade the west side of our house.”

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Keen said the district would try to preserve any seedlings left over, then plant them next year. Another giveaway is also possible, she said.

The national forest’s other four districts were coping with unplanted seedings in a variety of ways, Keen said. Some have made arrangements for nurseries or university agricultural programs to care for the seedlings until next planting season, in return for a portion of them, she said.


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