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Restoring a forest, one seedling at a time

Hubbard County resident Tom Barta stands in his tree farm. Since 2000, he's been reforesting 33 acres of aspen to bring back native pines. It's been a frustrating and rewarding endeavor. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Tom Barta apologizes for being a slacker.

In his effort to restore 33 acres of land to native pine forests, 54,500 trees have been planted since 2002.

"I only planted about half of those," he says, almost apologetically. And of those 20,000+ trees, he had help. Daughter Laura came annually from Hershey, Penn., to assist each spring.

Barta and wife Sheryl own 248 acres of land adjoining County Road 7 and the Paul Bunyan State Forest in Hubbard County.

He was bothered that the popple had taken over, spreading like weeds.

So in 2000, he logged 66 acres of it and dedicated half to reforesting it in native pine.

It's been a Herculean task. The logging, disking and trenching took one summer. Then a herbicide was applied to prevent the aspens from springing back up.

Then the waiting period, leaving the land idle that year, was up.

In 2002, the planting began in earnest when Laura came to offer her services. But the path to reforestation was arduous.

It physically winds one-eighth mile upwards through an existing forest. The two schlepped hundreds, then thousands of Norway pine seedlings uphill. They spent hours bending over, digging a hole, planting the trees. That first year, they put in 21,000 seedlings.

Then disappointment set in.

Deer feasted on the soft-needled pines through the winter when Barta, a five-month seasonal resident, returned to Iowa.

Many more died of natural causes.

"It's terrible," Barta said of the mortality rate. "Probably more than 50 percent. I've had miserable luck at this. Why would you want to do a story on a guy who plants trees that die?"

But Barta's inner core was more tenacious than any herd of deer. He and Laura kept at it and called in help when their backs gave out.

He paid professional planters to come in a few years to supplement the slowly growing forest of survivors.

"Those guys can plant 3,000 a day," he said. "I can only plant 250.

"You gotta keep at it," he said of the planting. "Otherwise you have a nasty looking field. I'm a persistent guy. I'll outlast 'em. If I continue planting I'll have 33 acres of pine."

He enrolled in a federal cost-sharing program with technical assistance from the DNR Forestry division in Park Rapids.

"There are lots of different programs out there for landowners," said DNR Forestry supervisor Mark Carlstrom. But like the planting, these programs take patience and years to come to fruition, too.

Barta estimates he's received around 50 percent reimbursement of his $15,000 investment. That's incentive to keep on planting, he maintains.

Although he's purchased containerized trees, the bare root varieties are more economical to plant.

Carlstrom cautions aspiring amateur foresters that the process takes a minimum of one year to begin and is currently "heavily backlogged."

The DNR performs field verification, ensures that the planting meets specifications and recommends payment. It called in four consultants to help the local office wade through that backlog.

Some programs offer landowners with active, current stewardship plans property tax assistance, Carlstrom said.

Barta has purchased most of his trees from the state nursery at Badoura. He finally gave up on the Norways because they became too labor intensive to save.

Every fall, he'd trudge back up the hill, wrap the tips with paper and staple a protective cover over each tree to ward off the deer. Come spring, he'd unwrap them. They still got chomped.

He then switched to white spruce, reluctantly.

"They're not half as pretty a tree as the Norways," he said. But those early Norways are now about 5 feet high and seem to be out of the woods, so to speak.

The herbicide didn't kill off the wild raspberry and blueberry bushes that cradle the newly sprouting forest. He brings his grandkids up in the summer to pick berries and admire his work.

Wild columbine grows in his forest, lending a graceful touch of color to his pines.

"If I plant it I'll be around to see it," the retiree says wryly.

"You have to make plans for the future," laughs Sheryl.

His short-term future involves giving his legs and back a rest so he and Laura can get back to the planting next spring.