TWIN PEAKS, Calif. — On the kitchen table of the Masonic lodge in this mountain village, Jim Asher gently unloaded 20 seedling giant sequoias from a cardboard box he received in the mail a few days ago.
They were the first of 30,000 such trees that Asher's Rim of the World Masonic Lodge bought from an Oregon nursery for resale locally as part of an ambitious, and somewhat controversial, effort to reclaim the San Bernardino Mountains' burned and beetle-ravaged forests.
Although not the only reforestation program planned for the area, "Project Cornerstone Tree" is the first to be implemented and Asher, a retired forester of 52 years, expects it will grow into a large, long-lived monument. After all, giant sequoias are drought-, bark beetle-, ozone- and fire-resistant, grow three feet a year, and live thousands of years.
"Consider it a modest start toward a new, managed forest," Asher said, with a shy smile while cradling one of the trees in his hands.
The Masonic lodge is already taking orders for the 12-inch trees, which are going for $2 each, or $1.50 each in batches of 500 or more, instructions included.
Planting won't start until April. However, after they are in the ground, there will be no turning back because a sequoia's taproot burrows deep.
But Katie Barrows, president of the Riverside/San Bernardino Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, questions bringing thousands of nonnative sequoias into an area dominated for centuries by ponderosa pine.
"People can plant what they choose on their private property," she said. "We just hope they consider the benefits of a locally adapted native species for wildlife and the heritage of the area."
Christie Robinson, education coordinator at the Mojave Desert Resource Conservation District, which is organizing its own reforestation effort, put it another way: "We cannot endorse bringing in a species that is not indigenous to the area. We wish they had selected a different tree."
Robinson also would prefer to forestall any major reforestation efforts in the region until erosion controls are in place, dead trees have been cleared, and forestry officials have nurtured hundreds of thousands of native seedlings from seeds collected locally -- a process that could take at least five years.
But Asher said he believes there is little time to lose. Locals are so eager to replace what they have lost to bark beetles, fire or mandated removals that they may buy a mix of nonnative species that will quickly die or be planted so densely that they will render the area vulnerable to another catastrophic loss.
The parched region's estimated 1 million dead pine trees -- some 100 feet tall stand decaying, threatening to fall on homes, power lines and across evacuation routes.
"We were hit hard by wave after wave of bark beetles," Asher said. Healthy pines would have drowned the bugs with sap. But in a fourth year of drought, the beetles landed on stressed and weakened trees, and then emitted a chemical that attracted swarms.
Millions of beetles smaller than a pencil eraser bored into the bark and consumed the moist core, where trees store and dispatch nutrients from roots to needles.
Compounding problems, 100 years of fire suppression has rendered local forests 10 times denser than they should be, making it easier for the insect to proliferate. Forest experts estimate that more local pine trees have died in the past year than over the last 400 years.
Walking through a dense, dead forest behind the Twin Peaks lodge, Asher said, "What we see happening now is an example of Mother Nature taking over the management of this place because people wouldn't let her."
Asher nodded toward a single, bright-green, 30-foot sequoia in the distance surrounded by dead pines. "That tree was planted about 15 years ago," he said. "It's a living example of how best to manage nature's necessities in an otherwise urban forest."
Sequoias are not alien to these mountains. In 1956, Asher helped plant several along Highway 18 east of Crestline that are now 40 feet tall. Dozens more were handed out free to local homeowners in the 1970s by the U.S. Forest Service, which considered them impervious to smog. A stand of century-old sequoias grows in Yucaipa.
Asher said there are enough sequoias in the region to qualify for "nearly native status."
Glenn Barley, the California Department of Forestry forester in charge of replanting in the San Bernardino Mountains, is a supporter of Asher's cause. "True, the giant sequoia is not a native tree," Barley said.
"But if we don't encourage a tree that we know performs well, doesn't use a lot of water and is resistant to bark beetles, folks will get something else less desirable."
In the meantime, the sequoia sale has been a boon for Masons.
Like lodges across the nation, the 53-year-old lodge in Twin Peaks had seen a steady membership decline. Until the sequoia sale, its largest charitable undertaking had been a Christmas party for 35 poor families.
"We've seen more local interest in membership," Asher said, "and Masonic lodges in Big Bear Lake and San Diego County are talking about making baby sequoias available in those areas as well."
"No problem there," he said. "We'll just buy more seedling giant sequoias."