A Planetful of Trees

Frank Lockyear pursues a quest to plant seedlings all around the world. PROFILE: TREE PLANTER

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ON a hillside facing the truncated cone of Mt. St. Helens, a troop of Boy Scouts circles around Frank Lockyear, a 77-year-old retired nurseryman from Wilsonville, Ore. The Scouts' red berets are the only blooms of color in this wasteland. When the volcano erupted back in 1980, it clearcut the hillside of every living thing, then laid down a patina of gray pumice and ash. Mr. Lockyear kneels in the detritus and digs a small hole. He sets a fir seedling in it, spreads the roots, and bulldozes in backfill with his hand.

Grinning slyly, as though to involve the Scouts in a naughty conspiracy, he says, ``At home, your mothers probably tell you not to put your foot down. But when you plant trees, you must put your foot down.'' He heels in the seedling by way of demonstration. ``It compacts the soil and keeps air from rotting the roots.''

The scouts scatter across the hillside. They plant several hundred trees that day. The more conscientious of them make sure to put a foot down.

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Frank Lockyear, latter-day Johnny Appleseed and Pied Piper, has struck again.

He looks like your favorite uncle - balding, going to paunch, with a face that could have been hacked from a slab of cedar, and hands gnarled as tree roots. But beneath the avuncular fa,cade are fire and ice - the passion of a zealot and the shrewdness of a used-car salesman. Lockyear wants to retree the globe - not all of it, necessarily, just those parts he can get to.

Thus far he has gotten to Morocco, Poland, Greece, and Spain. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Virgin Islands. Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico. Thailand, Taiwan, and South Korea. He has planted trees throughout much of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, and in most of the Pacific Northwest.

He recruits people - mainly young people - to help, including Boy and Girl Scouts, Four-H club members, Campfire and church and school groups. A couple of springs ago, he planted trees with 12 Girl Scouts on an island off southeastern Alaska. Two weeks later he was surrounded by 10,000 tree-planting college students in Thailand.

Lockyear acquired his passion as a young man working for a nursery in Portland, Ore. One day he noticed several boxes of cedar seedlings headed for the burn pile.

``Those tiny potted trees looked so nice, I couldn't see them destroyed,'' said Lockyear in an interview. When he speaks, his words come out slowly as though dug, syllable-by-syllable, from the earth. ``I went to the boss and asked if I could plant them. He was suspicious that I was going to sell them myself, but finally agreed. I took my Boy Scout troop up in the Cascades and we planted those cedars on Forest Service land. They're still there.''

Eventually, his boss was right. Lockyear went on his own. During the 40 years he had a nursery, he continued planting trees and maintaining ties with any group that would assist. When he retired, he had contacts and the skills of a master pitchman.

He solicits help from government agencies - domestic and foreign - corporations, private groups, and individuals. He asks for seedlings, land on which to plant, elbow grease, transportation, cash. He beguiles, arm-twists, deals, back slaps, bargains. He freely admits: ``I'm not at all shy about asking for help regarding tree planting.''

Needs always seem greater than resources, however. Most of Lockyear's funding comes from his own modest personal finances.

But get him talking about trees and his eyes light up and unearthed words fly like leaves in the wind.

``The world needs trees. They give us oxygen, protect the soil and water. They filter out pollutants, moderate the climate. They are one of our few renewable resources. Wisely managed, they can benefit us forever. But on a worldwide scale, we aren't managing them at all, let alone wisely. We are destroying our forests. Everybody worries about atom bombs. We better worry about trees.''

Ten years ago, Lockyear realized that he needed a structure for his cause. He founded ReTree International, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Wilsonville, which has three goals: to plant idle lands, to involve and educate people, and to assist forestry research.

ReTree conducts plantings year-round, keeping Lockyear on the move. Because he can't attend every event, ReTree is preparing a training manual for leaders. As a help to research, the organization distributes seeds for experimental plantings. It conducts conferences. In 1990, it will sponsor a symposium in Iceland on high-latitude forestry.

Recently, ReTree began planting small, commemorative forests. The projects were sparked by the dream of a 14-year-old girl in Toronto. Janice Johnston wanted to plant a memorial to the American servicemen killed in a 1985 plane crash at Gander, Newfoundland. But she didn't know how to organize it. ReTree helped, and in September of 1986, Lockyear and Miss Johnston dedicated a grove of 254 Canadian maples at Fort Campbell, Ky.

ReTree has continued these commemorative plantings. On Armed Forces Day 1989, Lockyear was at Lowry Air Force base in Denver, alongside 250 airmen and more than 500 youngsters, planting a Dwight Eisenhower memorial forest. This coming October, ReTree will sponsor a Charles Lindbergh tree-plant in Minnesota, and another at Lockerbie, Scotland, for the victims of the Flight 103 terrorist attack.

The movers and shakers in forestry and conservation who know Lockyear's work think highly of it. Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug wrote in a letter to him, ``Your organization, with a very limited budget, is doing more to increase and promote tree planting than many other large organizations that publish ... scientific treatises on slick paper, but after all is said and done, there are no more trees to show for it.''

Dr. John Gordon, dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies commented that ``In a time when grass-roots movements and action receive lip service but little elbow grease ..., your efforts are truly outstanding.''

The Society of American Foresters, an association of professionals, made Lockyear a nonprofessional member. Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield called him ``a man of vision ... committed to protecting the world's forest heritage for future generations.'' Lockyear, though, is particularly proud of a tribute he got from the Boy Scouts, in which he has been active, boy and man, for more than half a century: He was the first person to receive its William T. Hornaday Gold Medallion, Scouting's highest conservation award.

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