Why Idaho’s Silver Valley is forested again

Ed Pommerening, 1947-2022
by Jim Petersen, Editor, The Evergreen Foundation

When Ed Pommerening died last Christmas Eve in Kellogg, Idaho he left a forestry legacy that is unmatched in Idaho history. I grew up in Kellogg and knew Ed mostly by reputation. We last talked by phone in 1996. I was in the middle manuscripts for an Evergreen edition featuring forests and forestry in Idaho and I wanted to include a short story about the miraculous rebirth of forests on the barren hills of my youth.

Ed is the reason Idaho’s Silver Valley between Smelterville and Big Creek is covered with countless thousands of conifers, many of them 50 feet tall. It is a stunning tribute to the dogged determination of a young man who once told me that the Kellogg he saw for the first time in 1972 reminded him of the godawful agent orange devastation he’d seen while serving with the 101st Airborne Rangers in South Vietnam.

That young man was Ed Pommerening. He was coming to Kellogg then to begin work as the Bunker Hill Company’s first forester. “Uncle Bunker” was by far Idaho’s largest industrial employer, the Union Pacific Railroad’s largest customer by tonnage, and the largest power consumer in the entire Washington Water Power system. At one time, Bunker Hill was the largest mining and smelting company in North America. It supplied most the lead we threw at the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War.

I worked my way through college in company stopes a mile beneath the streets of Kellogg. It was dangerous as hell — but great fun. I have no idea what convinced Ed that he could turn the Silver Valley’s barren hills green again — or how he convinced the company to invest in the crazy idea that he could grow countless thousands of seedlings 3,000 feet down in the mine, but in August 1975 company carpenters built Ed’s first 40-foot long underground greenhouse. One of my late father’s plumbing crews ran the water lines.

The scale of Ed’s thinking was breathtaking but the idea was not new. Many miners grew vegetables in pots in pitch black drifts with only the illumination of a single lightbulb. The air temperature was a constant 72 degrees, so all you had to add was some soil, water from a nearby drill line, a little light, and voila! It certainly helped that Ed had earned two forestry degrees from the University of Idaho. His connections would prove invaluable after his first seedlings died soon after they were transplanted on treeless hills by high school kids and civic groups.

The same thing had happened to seedlings my Cub Scout pack planted in Vergobbi Gulch in the 1950s. We never knew why, but soil scientists at the University of Idaho figured out that sulfur dioxide gas released from stacks at the Bunker smelter had polluted the soil. Acid was killing the seedlings. The solution: plant them deeper and add a dash of neutralizing potash for good measure. The beautiful result graces both sides of Interstate 90 between Smelterville and Big Creek:  Ponderosa, Scotch and Austrian pine, Douglas-fir, western larch, western white pine, blue spruce, willow, and poplar.

The homesteader’s apple orchard behind our home on Mission Avenue has given way to a sea of green that turns to gold in the fall. Words seem inadequate.

A very good case can be made for the fact that the Silver Mountain Resort and Ski Area and its legendary gondola are prospering today because of Ed Pommerening’s modesty and quiet determination. Small wonder that his forestry consulting business, Riverview Timber Services, thrived for decades.

The Kellogg where I grew up is long gone: the smelter whistles that announced shift changes, the friends I made underground, Al Laramie at the piano on Friday nights at the old Sunshine Inn, and the vibrancy of Kellogg’s booming economy. We thought Bunker would go on forever. For better or worse, it didn’t. The end came in 1981. Labor strife and unattainable federal air and water quality standards were the main reasons. But Ed’s vision provided the catalyst for Kellogg’s rebirth.

The power of forestry turned the barren hills of my youth green again and my hometown has a future. There is a bronze statue of a miner at the corner of Main and McKinley Avenue in uptown Kellogg. There needs to be one of Ed standing beside him.

~ Jim Petersen, Editor

The Reforestation of Silver Valley is a fascinating story told by Ed Pommerening and others about an industry that took the initiative to solve a major environmental problem in northern Idaho. The video was funded by the Kootenai-Shoshone County Farm Bureau and Idaho Farm Bureau and was produced by Matthew Bane. Watch it [HERE].


Climbing trees to harvest pine cones after the Wallow Fire in Arizona

Wallow Fire
Engine crew works on the Wallow Fire in 2011. Photo by Jayson Coil.

On a recent October day south and west of Alpine, AZ, James Nesslage and Brandon Billy were harvesting a bumper crop of cones from the top branches of a 100-foot tall ponderosa pine. That tree and others like it are survivors of the 538,049-acre Wallow Fire that burned in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico in 2011, most of it within the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. The cones being picked will yield the seeds needed to continue the restoration of parts of that vast burn.

picking pine cones
James Nesslage climbs a rope rigged in a 100-foot ponderosa pine tree as as he and his crew prepare to harvest seed cones on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest southwest of Alpine, AZ. Photo by Tom Story.

Plans to restore the forest began before the Wallow Fire was contained. Initial estimates were that high burn severity over much of the fire area would result in natural regeneration being hampered by a lack of available seed trees.

To have the best chance of survival, seedlings must be grown from cones taken from parent trees in the area. Patrick Murphy, silviculturist on the Apache-Sitgreaves, explained:

Several factors are used in determining where cones are harvested and from which trees seed is collected.  The forest has pre-established “seed zones”.  These seed zones are geographic locations found throughout the forest.  In collecting seed we take into consideration if the parent tree is free from insects, disease, defects, deformity, or forking.  The tree should also exhibit superior height and diameter growth.  We will plant seedlings in the same seed zone and elevation band where the parent tree is located.

Earlier in the year, there was a larger crew of 20 people harvesting the seed cones. Now as the cone picking season, which began in mid-August, was winding down, there were only two other people; father and son Randy and Brandon James, working that day.  It would take two to three hours for each team to completely strip the tree of its cones. “The contract specifies eighty-percent (of the cones on each tree)” said Mr. Nesslage, “but we try to do better than that”. The pine that the James duo picked that morning barely produced a bushel of good cones while the tree that Mr. Nesslage and Mr. Billy harvested yielded over three bushels.

picking pine cones
Brandon Billy works his way out on a limb as James Nesslage (mostly hidden at right) uses a hook to pull the cone laden tip of a limb close to Mr. Billy during the seed cone harvest. Photo by Tom Story.

A general contractor in the construction business, Mr. Nesslage came across a solicitation for a seed cone harvesting contract on the Federal Business Opportunities website and thought it was a chance to put some of his climbing experience to good use. “Go camping, climb trees and get paid for it! Sweet!” was his reaction. He was awarded a contract and started picking in 2012.  He admitted that the learning curve was a little steep at first but was able to complete the harvest. The cone crop in 2013 was poor and was not picked, so when Mr. Nesslage’s teams returned to the woods this year, not only was there more to harvest, they had a larger crew and more knowledge of how to do the job better and more efficiently.

Continue reading “Climbing trees to harvest pine cones after the Wallow Fire in Arizona”