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Johnny Appleseed of the Oquirrhs
Utahn has planted trees, restored habitat on the mountain slopes

SHARE Johnny Appleseed of the Oquirrhs
Utahn has planted trees, restored habitat on the mountain slopes

Although I never met Johnny Appleseed, I have met his Utah equivalent in Paul Rokich. Unlike the mythical Appleseed with a pot on his head, Rokich is very real, but spending time tramping the mountains with this extraordinary man almost seems mythical.

He spends his life improving the water, habitat and the wildlife of the Oquirrh Mountains on the west side of Salt Lake Valley. He is known as the man who plants the trees.Born -- literally -- at the Kennecott smelter site, he has devoted his life to his mission of planting trees and many other plants. His life began at the junction of old U.S. 40 or the Lincoln Highway and the bridge that drained the floodwaters out of Smelter Canyon each spring.

Although the Oquirrh Mountains were once the home of lush forests, when Rokich was a child the forests had been decimated. Floodwaters would tear out of the canyon because there were no plants to protect the soil. Mud, boulders and debris would create a torrential river just a few feet from the family's doorstep.

This ecological disaster had a profound effect on young Rokich as he listened to the torrent destroying the mountainside.

"When I was 6 years old, I vowed that someday I would fix those mountains and I would help restore what had been lost from mining, smelting, logging and overgrazing," said Rokich. "I did not know how I would do it at that time, but I never lost sight of that goal.

"My younger years were not easy, nor was I able to do much to fix the mountains. My father died, and I had three brothers go off to war. I worked to support the family and started on Tomato Ridge in Magna working for the vegetable farmers.

"I was fortunate to get a job with the research farm of American Smelting and Refining Co. We grew barley, alfalfa and wheat and other crops at the research farm. I did my time in the Army, and when I returned, I worked for Brown Floral, did landscaping on my own and worked construction."

Rokich never lost sight of wanting to fix the mountain. His quest started in 1957 in Black Rock Canyon when he set out with a backpack full of trees and seeds and started to plant wherever he thought they might take hold.

"Having to support all of my efforts by myself meant I would often collect seeds of many trees. Acorns and maple seeds were my favorites. Sometimes people would give me plants and I would take them also," he said.

There were no roads going to where Rokich wanted to go, so he would start at Black Rock and hike to the top of the Oquirrhs, planting as he went.

"Near the top of the peaks, I could see the stumps of giant firs and Douglas firs that were cut down to provide pilings for Saltair and Black Rock and timber for the town of Corrine," he said. They cut the trees in the winter, skidded them down on the snow and floated them across the lake. Logging left the mountain slopes very susceptible to erosion.

"I love to read," said Rokich. "I take great delight in the writings of John Muir. He wrote, 'Looking across the Jordan to the gray, sagey slopes from the base of Oquirrh Mountains covered with a thick, plush cloth of gold, soft and ethereal as a cloud, not merely tinted and gilded like a rock with autumn sunshine, but deeply muffled beyond recognition. Surely nothing in heaven nor any mansion of the Lord in all his worlds could be more gloriously carpeted.' I knew that was what I wanted the mountains to look like again."

After Rokich spent 15 years and a great deal of his own time and money, Kennecott Copper Corp. finally recognized the value of the work he was doing. In 1973, it hired him to work for its Department of Environmental Affairs. Director Bill Williams supported all his efforts.

For wildlife to flourish, it must have habitat. The plants in the habitat must have water. Watershed management is critical to life here in Utah. Our water comes from watersheds, and abused watersheds do not store or preserve and clean the water. Without water there are no plants, and without the plants there is no wildlife.

"I treat these mountains like my own back yard," said Rokich. "If you want wildlife habitat in your yard, plant what I plant. In grassy areas, I include yellow sweet clover, alfalfa, wheat and brome grass and many wildflowers. Shrub areas include cliffrose, bitter brush, sagebrush, birch and curl leaf mountain mahogany, elderberry and serviceberry. I love to plant flowers including Utah sweetvetch, California poppy, penstemon, paintbrush, lupine and many others. In my career, I have planted 60,000 trees and 20,000 acres of grass. Utah Copper Division provides tractors, drills, helicopters and airplanes, as well as crews to help restore these mountains."

The animals have returned to the mountains since Rokich restored the habitat. In areas that once had as much growth as the landscape on the moon, animals of all kinds flourish. Hundreds of elk from this region have been transplanted to start herds across the nation. Bluebirds, robins, chukkers and eagles have returned.

"I am the luckiest man alive," Rokich said. "Throw a million dollars in the road, and I wouldn't take it. I love what I do here and feel that what I do here is what I am supposed to do. If I did not do this, I would not want to meet the Lord and have him ask why I was not doing what I knew I should."

If you would like more information on backyard conservation, you can get a free booklet to help you. The booklet is available from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Association of Conservation Districts and the Wildlife Habitat Council. It outlines 10 conservation activities you can do in your own back yard. Call 1-888-LANDCARE (526-3227) for your free copy. For additional resources on protecting plants, soil, water and animals, check my Web site at www.utahgreen.org/larry Look under the article of the week.