Keep America green: Hire an illegal alien

  • Cartoon of United States as an evergreen tree

    Greg Siple
  • Evergreen sketch

    Greg Siple

From 1975 to 1987, I inspected tree planting in the Klamath National Forest on the Oregon-California border. So I had to laugh a while ago at a quote in a newspaper story about illegal aliens apprehended while planting trees in the Boise National Forest here in Idaho.

"The Forest Service does not knowingly hire contractors who break federal immigration and labor laws," the agency told a Boise newspaper.

I wondered if the writer had ever followed a planting crew, if he or she had any memories similar to mine. What I remember are dark and rainy February mornings: Two cranky forestry technicians dragged bags of trees out of the tree cooler, stacked them in the bed of the green pickup, and covered them with outdated fire shelters. We filled the two milk cans near the tailgate with water, stuffed a couple of sacks of vermiculite beside them, and roared back up to the station. It was 5:30 a.m.

Beneath the sulfurous glow of the parking lot lights, two dark vans had appeared: faces peering at us from foggy windows. The vans followed as we pulled onto the highway, turned off onto a logging road, coffee splashing into our laps as we hit the first potholes.

An hour later, the muddy road ended. Between the clacking windshield wipers we saw a steep, steep slope, 1,000 feet from top to bottom. A piece of pie had been sliced from the forest - every living stick removed or burned. At the clear-cut's edge, the old growth reared abruptly, the slick orange trunks of madrone and black-gray trunks of Douglas fir just visible in the slight lessening of the soupy darkness.

The rig was swiftly surrounded by about 20 planters who had emerged from the vans. As the foremen slit open tree bags to lift out bundles of 20-year-old conifers, the planters seized the tiny trees, sloshed the roots in a slurry of water and vermiculite, then stuffed them into rubberized bags belted to their waists. Each bag held about 500 trees.

The planters were Mexican nationals; only the foreman spoke fluent English. You could always spot the new arrivals because they wore cheap tennis shoes, polyester trousers and loud cowboy shirts. Many had no gloves or hats. The foreman and I wore hard hats and good rain gear.

Bags loaded, the crew dropped over the edge as if the earth fell away to nothing, and, 8 feet apart, the planters worked their way downhill, searching for planting spots among blackened debris left from burning slash.

Each carried a hoedad, a flat steel blade about 18 inches long and 4 inches wide attached to an ax handle. Plunging it into the bare soil, popping the handle up to break out a space for the roots, a planter would deftly slip seedlings into place, tamp the soil back in, then slide another 8 feet down the slope.

We watched the planters work. When they were far enough ahead, we abandoned our perches on 7-foot-wide stumps and "threw a plot' - tossing a spike over a shoulder. Wherever it landed marked the center of a random one-fiftieth-acre plot. We counted the number of planted trees, then dug up several, carefully. If the taproot dove straight down, the tree was well-planted. A good crew planted 95 percent or more of its trees correctly.

At lunchtime, the crew built an enormous fire on the roadbed to brown tortillas and fry meat and beans. Peppers, salsa, cans of soda and cookies appeared and disappeared as the planters laughed and talked. Though their hands and whippety bodies testified to a lifetime of hard labor, they seemed far happier than we were at the prospect of three months' picnicking in a deluge. Most of them were under 21, some admitted they were only 14; a few were probably even younger.

We didn't ask their history, though sometimes strong clues surfaced, as when a Forest Service silviculturist paid an unannounced visit in his personal truck. The crew dropped their tools as one and raced for the timber. The two foremen plodded up to the road. Realizing that the visitor was only another agency employee, they laughed in relief.

"Your truck," they chortled. "It's the same color as the Border Patrol trucks. You scared them pretty good!'

The silviculturist repeated this anecdote ad nauseum all over the office, just in case there were line or staff officers who could still claim ignorance of the status of the crew.

Real U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service raids usually came at night, often when the crew had rented motel rooms in town. Raids could be a welcome break, allowing us to catch up on paperwork, clean out the tree cooler, do our laundry and shop.

One morning after a raid, 80,000 seedlings arrived from a Forest Service nursery. We made room in the cooler, and there they sat for a month - until the 23 planters returned from their bus ride across the border.

Working 14-hour days, seven days a week, they planted as many as 90 acres and 23,000 trees a day as April ended. A week of hot weather in May ended the planting season, and after waving goodbye to the crew we hauled the leftover trees from the cooler, poured diesel on them and set them afire.

How did a federal agency get itself in this shadowland of illegality? Blame it on projections that promised success in artificially regenerating large clearcuts. What no one added to the equation was reality: Planting, unlike logging, cannot be mechanized on the steep slopes of the Pacific Northwest.

We had to plant as many as 1,500 acres of clearcuts every spring, and this required large crews - a niche quickly filled by big contractors with access to the bottomless reservoir of Hispanic labor in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley. Local residents may have wanted the work, but they lacked the cash to compete for the huge contracts put up by the Klamath National Forest.

So, every winter, Forest Service contracting officers in warm headquarters buildings solemnly told the successful bidders that the hiring of illegal aliens was, well, illegal.

Contractors solemnly assured the contracting officers that all their workers had green cards. The contracting officers, paperwork in order, went back to their desks. And 70 miles away, in the freezing rain, a couple of GS-5 forestry technicians followed two dozen ill-clad teenagers across a scarred mountainside, and silently prayed that these cheerful and competent people would not be sent south until they had crawled out of the last clear-cut and planted the last tree.

Louise Wagenknecht is an orchardist and writer these days in Leadore, Idaho.

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