Summit County woman’s job is to plant Colorado’s future forests |

Summit County woman’s job is to plant Colorado’s future forests

Alli Langley
Sarah Pearson, of Silverthorne, has worked on the White River National Forest for 20 years. Most of that time she has been coordinating tree planting, timber stand improvement and reforestation efforts based out of the Dillon Ranger District.
Courtesy Sarah Pearson |

Sarah Pearson takes the long view when it comes to the White River National Forest.

For the past 20 years, the Silverthorne resident has planted new trees in areas impacted by timber harvest and clear-cuts. Those spindly stands may not look like much now. But just wait.

“In 100 years, this will look awesome,” she said.

Based out of the Dillon Ranger District office in Summit County, Pearson is the national forest’s reforestation and timber-stand improvement coordinator.

District ranger Bill Jackson, who has been getting to know his staff since he moved from New Hampshire to the district in January, called Pearson a quintessential Forest Service scientist.

“She’s got just a real good understanding of forest ecology in general,” he said.

Pearson’s reforestation work was among the top three activities the district chose as accomplishments to highlight for an annual White River National Forest report.

“What gets the attention is the cutting, the harvest,” Jackson said, “but there is another side to that.”

Under the 1976 National Forest Management Act, the federal agency must certify that logged national forest lands are naturally regenerating or that trees are being planted within five years of the cut.

The Dillon Ranger District highlighted that in 2014, Pearson’s crews planted 161 previously logged acres with tree seedlings. The district also certified 739 acres of clear-cut forest around Frisco and Silverthorne as naturally regenerating.


After years on the job, Pearson has seen trees come full circle.

She has collected cones on the ground after a clear-cut and sent the seeds to the Forest Service nursery in Nebraska that serves Colorado and three neighboring states.

Every fall, she orders the amount of each tree species she will plant two years later from the nursery’s seed bank, which catalogs trees by factors including seed zone and elevation.

She receives the tree shipments two springs later, supervises their planting and monitors their survival and growth over the years.

“There’s a lot more that goes into it than people would ever imagine,” she said.

Her job involves writing, submitting, awarding and administering planting contracts. She can quickly identify the handful of local tree species from a distance, and she keeps a database with maps of and information about every tree she’s planted.

Most of the trees planted in 2014 were in four Summit campgrounds — Prospector, Peak One, Pine Cove and Windy Point — where Pearson supervised the planting of 1,000 Douglas fir and 200 Engelmann spruce trees.

The trees arrived in May and June in four separate semi-trailer loads from the Nebraska nursery, and Pearson worked with groups of roughly 14 inmates employed through Colorado Corrections Industries, the state’s prison workforce program, to plant them.

Pearson marked every spot where a tree would go — usually close to existing lodgepole pines for protective shade — with flags color-coded for the different species, she said, and for six days of planting, the inmates dug holes and hefted the 50- to 80-pound bags of trees.

Pearson said she gets excited when she returns to a planted tree that’s doing well, telling the tree, “Oh, look, you’re so happy.”

She’s not the only one talking to the plants, though. She said the inmate workers sometimes verbally reassure the trees that they’ll be OK.


Coordinating the logistics of planting in the field is probably the most stressful part of her job, Pearson said, as it can involve long hours and weeks without a day off.

She uses different people depending on the size of the project, the tree species and where they’re being planted.

In 2014, Pearson contracted with a professional crew that traveled from Oregon to reforest part of the Frisco peninsula. The group planted about 13,000 Douglas fir and ponderosa pine seedlings on 36 acres in three days.

“Most of the whole peninsula is coming out really well with lodgepole pine regeneration,” she said. The crew focused on a grassy ridge above the Dillon Day Use parking lot.

Then she worked with Vail Resorts employees to plant roughly 5 acres of lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce trees on Peak 9 at Breckenridge Ski Resort and 9 acres at Keystone Resort near the Area 51 terrain park.

She also supervised four seasonal Forest Service employees who planted about 7 acres near Straight Creek, where she thought a portion of the recently logged area needed some help regenerating.

Pearson said some people harp on the lack of aspen in the trees the Forest Service plants in Summit.

“The local community has been going on and on about why aren’t we planting aspen,” she said. “There really is no good way to be successful doing it.”

Aspens need plenty of moisture and tender loving care, she said, and in years past the Forest Service experimented with ways to plant the species but was unsuccessful.

When present before a clear-cut, aspens regenerate faster than the dominant lodgepole pine species, she said, citing the south side of the Wildernest development as an example.


In June, July and August, the four seasonal employees on Pearson’s timber-stand improvement crew worked on 312 acres on the Frisco peninsula doing visual enhancements in a highly used recreation area. They cleaned up trees that blew down after logging and felled and bucked damaged or diseased trees.

“They pretty much spent the entire summer out there,” she said. “It looks a lot better.”

Then the crew spent August, September and October monitoring recent clear-cuts for regeneration in the forest stewardship contract areas of Eagle’s Nest, Lake Hill, Meadow Creek, Pebble Creek, Ryan Gulch and Salt Lick.

Standard protocol is counting the number of trees in one plot with an 11.8-foot radius for every acre. That results in plots 1/100th of an acre in size and a sampling of 1 percent of the clear-cut.

With some exceptions, a plot can be certified as naturally regenerating if it has two or more lodgepole pine, spruce or fir trees, with the goal being at least 150 trees per acre. The overall clear-cut forest unit must meet the two-tree requirement in at least 75 percent of its plots to be considered properly stocked.


Pearson said her crew also collects data on the age and size of large trees in the plots as well as the species composition of each plot broken down by trees, shrubs, forbs and grasses.

Then she must input the data and submit it to higher-level agency staff.

Her crews formally monitor trees one year and three years after planting, while cut forest lands that she determined didn’t need planting are monitored five years post-cut.

This summer, Pearson said she won’t plant much on the Dillon Ranger District and will be focused instead on monitoring post-cut regeneration.

That’s her favorite part of her job: seeing the tangible results of her work as seedlings grow and forests rebound.

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