Jon Earl stood on a bench in a parking lot near Charlton Flats Recreation Area in Angeles National Forest and surveyed the crowd of children and adults gathered in the shade of tall pine trees.
"We've got quite a little melting pot here," said Earl, a member of TreePeople a nonprofit, Coldwater Canyon-based conservation group.
The melting pot Earl was addressing included other members of TreePeople, members of the Crescenta Valley group of the Sierra Club and an assortment of Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and Brownies from La Crescenta, La Canada Flintridge, Encino, Woodland Hills, Canoga Park and as far away as Fullerton.
The group also included 10 youths from the Camp Barley Flats probation facility for juvenile offenders, who worked apart from the other volunteers.
In all, 164 volunteers went to Charlton Flats to dig into the task of planting 15 acres of forest land with foot-tall tree seedlings that could grow to be 30 feet tall in 30 to 50 years. By the end of the day, the volunteers had planted 3,800 trees.
The ambitious undertaking was organized by U.S. Forest Service Ranger Rich Hawkins and TreePeople, who have participated in three other Angeles National Forest projects since the planting season began in November.
Hawkins said he was was impressed by the number and variety of people who turned out. On a typical tree-planting Saturday, he said, one ranger would be on hand to work with 50 to 60 volunteers from TreePeople and the California Conservation Corps. On this day, however, six rangers were needed to coordinate a group three times that size.
The tree planting was part of a continuing program to reforest more than 140 acres in the Arroyo Seco Ranger District, one of five districts in the 693,000-acre national forest.
Hawkins said the Forest Service has planted about 20,000 trees in the forest every year since 1979, when a fire destroyed more than 30,000 acres in the Arroyo Seco District and the Tujunga District to the west.
The Sage Fire, as the 1979 fire is known, was stopped just short of the area being planted in Charlton Flats, a popular and heavily visited recreation spot 25 miles up Angeles Crest Highway from La Canada Flintridge. The last fire to hit the Charlton Flats area occurred in the late 1950s.
To prevent forest fires that could be as destructive as the Sage Fire, forest rangers have burned away 200 acres of highly flammable chaparral in Charlton Flats.
When the newly planted seedlings begin to grow, they are expected to provide shade that should keep the dry brush, which thrives on sunlight, from growing back, Hawkins said.
The Forest Service supplied all the tools the volunteers needed: 150 long-handled shovels; 65 tree-planting bars, which look something like pogo sticks but have shovel-like blades at the end, and three gas-powered augers, mechanized hole diggers that can corkscrew a hole in the ground in a fraction of the time it takes with a shovel.
Jerry cans and canteens filled with water also were handy to quench the thirst of the volunteers, who worked under a clear sky and bright sunshine 5,400 feet above sea level.
The seedlings were supplied by the Forest Service and by Honda dealers of Southern California, who were sponsoring the TreePeople. Four varieties of trees common to Angeles National Forest--Coulter, ponderosa and sugar pine, and incense cedars--were packed into canvas bags and cardboard boxes.
Under supervision of the forest rangers and members of TreePeople, the volunteers split into two groups and began working to the east and west of Angeles Crest Highway.
Earning Time Off
The Camp Barley Flats crew, dressed in blue overalls and yellow hard hats, worked at a third site not far away. Their volunteer work gave them a chance to move up on the camp's merit ladder and earn some time off from the average 30 weeks a juvenile offender stays at the camp, counselor Howard Byas said.
Byas said most of the 16- and 17-year-olds were from urban areas and had never seen snow until they were sent to Barley Flats, which is in the national forest.
Care had to be taken to properly plant the trees. As Ranger Mike Milosch said, "You don't just stick 'em in the ground."
The volunteers dug holes 10 to 12 inches deep. Then they had to hold each seedling upright in its hole, making sure not to bend the root, and carefully pack the dirt around the seedling, leaving about an inch of the root above the ground.
The trees, which often looked like twigs poking out of the ground, were encircled by rocks or pieces of loose chaparral to mark their location and to provide a bit of shade so moisture could gather in the ground. The trees were randomly spaced 6 to 10 feet apart.
"We're intentionally not following a real perfect pattern," Earl said. "We don't want it to look like a checkerboard."
Among the volunteers was J. J. Akeda of Cub Scout Pack 721 in Woodland Hills. To J. J. and other scouts who could earn a merit badge for the outing, planting a tree was fun, but hard work.
"It's hard to make these holes 'cause there's all these roots and everything," 9-year-old J. J. said, struggling with a shovel about a foot taller than he is.
The volunteer work saved taxpayers about $150 dollars for each of the 15 acres the group planted, Ranger Hawkins said.
The Forest Service is operating under a tight budget now. "We're losing people; we're losing part of our budget," Hawkins said. "The kind of thing you see us doing today is helping us successfully fulfill our forestry mission."
Staring down at the young trees, the 33-year-old ranger mused: "Someday, when I'm in my 50s, I'm going to look forward to coming back into this area and looking at all the trees I helped plant. That's a darn good feeling."