A crew of Rogue Valley eighth- and ninth-graders in hard hats hiked up the steep hillside on Mount Ashland Thursday morning, arms full of shovels and pickaxes, bags of compost and tree seedlings. Their goal: to plant 19 whitebark pine seedlings at the top of the ridge to help the species survive.
The students are part of the Youth Summer Services Program, a volunteer-based series of one-week work sessions organized by Mount Ashland with the support of the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. Groups of five to 10 young adults from throughout the valley learn about the forest, get community service credit and earn credit for a ski pass for the next season.
"When the kids come to us they've only seen the mountain in the winter as a user," said Ada Rivera, guest services manager. "This program lets them see it as a steward rather than a user."
Projects include trash pickup, trail maintenance and forest pruning.
Frank Bungay, who will be a freshman at Ashland High School this fall, has participated for two years. "It's pretty sweet," he said. "We work for four days and get $175 towards a pass. I'm a pretty avid snow boarder."
Wayne Rolle, a botanist for the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, showed the students where and how the seedlings should be planted.
Rolle said three of the whitebark pines were found on Mount Ashland during research for the ski area's expansion plans. Forest Service crews collected seeds from the cones four years ago, then grew seedlings from the seeds in a greenhouse.
Mount Ashland's expansion will not affect the existing trees, and the site chosen for the new seedlings is outside the expansion area.
"The whitebark pine is a common tree, there are plenty, but they are declining," Rolle said. "They are all over Mount Shasta and Mount McLoughlin, but in the Siskiyou Mountains, as far as we know, there are only these three trees. Fifty years ago, if you had looked up here you would have seen many whitebark pines."
Rolle attributed the decline to blister rust, a pathogen that was introduced in the early 1900s. The older trees are not killed by the pathogen, but a blister rust canker can girdle younger trees, starving them of nutrition and killing them.
At the top the ridge, the students dug 19 holes for the seedlings, sometimes sharing shovels and pickaxes, sometimes using just their hands. Their work for the week will earn them 20 hours of community service. On Monday, a new group of students will take over.
"It's just amazing all the work this program has done, so many projects," Rivera said.