JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash., April 21, 2010 -- Out of their own good will, many people plant trees on Arbor Day or Earth Day, wanting to give a little something back to the environment.

But for 14 men working last month on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, or JBLM, tree planting is a big part of their everyday job.

The men, planters with Ramos Reforestation, worked in a line formation planting more than 20,000 seedlings spaced eight feet apart on the 30-acre tract of clear-cut terrain. The project took these professional green thumbs less than a half day.

Bearing canvas bags full of Douglas fir, Western Red cedar and Ponderosa pine seedlings, the planters made their way across the South Perry plot that looked more like a moonscape then a forest. The 30 acres were logged in 2008 because laminated wood rot had targeted the plot's Douglas fir. Clear cuts of this size are rare on JBLM.

Every spring Nancy Benson, a JBLM Public Works Forestry Branch forester, works with the planting contractor to ensure all logged land is properly reforested.

"We're reforesting this because you just don't cut trees and leave (the area bare)," Benson said. "This is forest ground we're supposed to be providing or maintaining cover for the troops and if we just left this 30-acre area and waited for these trees to naturally seed in, it wasn't going to happen. I mean it would really take a very long time - if it happened at all."

According to forest practices rules established by the Washington Department of Natural Resources, reforestation must take place within three years of a clear cut.

This year, Benson's records show more than 83,000 trees were planted on 120 acres across the installation.

More than half of JBLM's 90,000 acres are considered forestland and from that 1,500 acres of Douglas fir are harvested each year. In 2010, timber sales on JBLM exceeded $3 million. According to Benson, some of that revenue goes back into the timber program and a percentage goes to Thurston and Pierce counties for roads and schools.

Before a tree can even be planted, Benson said the process of growing them from seed is even more complex.

During years of pine cone abundance, Benson and her crew use a cherry picker to hoist themselves up into the tops of pine and fir trees. From there they harvest cones with the intention of using the seed inside them to plant baby trees. But first they have to see if the seeds are worth collecting.

"Just because there are cones, doesn't mean there's seed in (them)," she said. "You have to sample the cones to see if there's any good seed in it and then collect it if it's worth collecting."

Benson gives the cones to David Gerdes, the owner of Silvaseed, a Roy, Wash., based commercial forester, who sends the seeds to Oregon State University for testing.

The OSU researchers perform germination tests to determine the seeds' purity.

"This information is very valuable in terms of the percentage of how much of that seed is going to actually grow into trees," Benson said, with more than 60 percent of the trees planted this year coming from seed collected on the base.

"(JBLM) is the only place in Western Washington where Ponderosa pine grows natively, so it's very interesting and important to collect seeds from the specific location out here on the (installation) in order to provide the right genetics to the ground," Gerdes said.

Silvaseed grows most of the seedlings used in Benson's reforestation efforts, and stores the seed collected from JBLM at its facility.

The commercial forester estimates that the company grows 60,000 trees per year for JBLM. The seedlings spend their first two years at the Silvaseed nursery before being planted on JBLM.

Prior to planting at the South Perry site, Benson worked with Soldiers from the 18th Engineer Company, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division to block access from the main roads to stop people from using the cleared land as an illegal dump site. After the planters finished their work, she placed brightly colored signs around the site to warn those walking through the area of the newly planted, fragile trees.

People are among the obstacles that hinder reforestation efforts, along with wildlife and the elements.

"It's challenging. (JBLM) is not easy ground," Benson said. "It's very shallow, rocky, dry soil and it's really hard for trees to get enough moisture and then grow through a Scotch Broom that comes in and grows three feet taller than the tree does."

And if the trees don't survive'

"I'll take stocking surveys after this growing season and then three growing seasons from now to see if they've made it," Benson said. "And if they don't, then you start all over again."