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A Planetful of Trees

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

By Robert GraySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 12, 1989



WILSONVILLE, ORE.

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.

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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.

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.''