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September 2015

Greening Up

The owner of Elk Mountain, Pa., wanted to create a picture-postcard area. In planting 35,000 evergreen trees, he got even more than that.

Written by Jeff Lewis | 0 comment

Long before the concept of “going green” was en vogue, Joe Moore had a vision for Elk Mountain. He became involved with the northeast Pennsylvania ski area in the early 1960s. From then on, he foresaw it as not only a place that offered superb ­skiing, but also provided an aesthetically pleasing environment.

His initial goal, says Moore, was to create a beautiful ski area by planting a lot of evergreen trees. It turned into a 33-year labor of love.

With expansive terrain and trails cut from the natural fall lines of the mountain, Elk is blessed with an ideal topography for skiing. However, its rocky soil is not conducive to growing the evergreen trees that would serve a dual purpose; providing aesthetics and acting as effective windbreaks. The natural woods at Elk Mountain consist mainly of hardwoods, including oak, maple, ash and cherry, along with butternut, poplar and some pine. But Moore was sold on evergreens, and recognized the benefits of an extensive evergreen redistribution tree-planting project.

When Moore became president of Elk in 1981, he began to experiment by planting a variety of evergreen species on land separate from the ski area. When current GM Gregg Confer arrived four years later, he established the tree-planting project as a top priority.

“People who visit Elk on a regular basis and comment on the beauty of the trees really have no idea just how much time and effort is put into this each year, or how important the trees are for maintaining the quality of the ski area,” Confer says. “We dedicate most of the spring and much of the fall and summer to the trees and all they entail.”

Remaking the Forest
The scope of the ongoing project is enormous, and involves a series of calculated steps that must be strictly adhered to or risk failure. But more on that later.

To date, the project has resulted in more than 30,000 spruces being added to Elk Mountain. Such a large population of evergreen trees may be common at ski areas in New England or out west, but it’s unusual for a Pennsylvania resort.

Not all evergreens are suited to Elk’s soil. According to Confer, pines have a spore root that doesn’t send off a series of roots, and although the trees will get large, they can also fall over under harsh winter or windy conditions. “Hemlocks,” he says, “are very finicky.”

However, after an initial trial and error period, Moore and Confer discovered that Norway and white spruces are ideal for a Pennsylvania ski area. “Spruces have a root that spreads and holds in rocky soil, the kind that is usually found in this state,” Confer explains. “They are not bothered by deer, and their branches will hold a heavy snow because they’re not brittle.”

Moore adds, “White spruces are very attractive and Norways grow fast. It’s a great combination.”

The impact has been profound, not only from an aesthetic standpoint—“Deciduous trees don’t have a very graceful habit,” Moore says—but from an operational one as well.

Elk’s mountain manager, Chris Weldon, has been instrumental in the ongoing success of the tree-planting project. Both he and Confer credit the trees for helping Elk to provide some of the best overall snow conditions in the East, year in, year out. “This would not be possible without the trees,” Confer contends. “They serve as great windbreaks, which gives us the ability to make and move snow where it’s most needed. Also, we rarely, if ever, have wind-related problems with the chairlifts, because the trees protect them.” This wasn’t the case when the trees weren’t as tall as they are now.

The spruces also have a positive impact on the environment. Not only do they prevent soil erosion; they also absorb carbon dioxide and potentially harmful gases, including sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, from the air and release oxygen. Also, the spruce trees can reduce noise by 40 percent. Even on Elk’s busiest days, there seems to be a sense of calm and serenity on the slopes that can’t be experienced at ski areas with fewer evergreen trees.

Though Moore and Confer never looked at the project from a cost basis, there are fiduciary aspects to consider. For example, each seedling costs between 35 cents and a dollar, depending upon its size. Equipment costs can add up, too; Confer says that the ski area has invested about $100,000 over the years for the project. This includes the purchase of a tree planter, along with a multi tractor loader on which to mount a tree digger.

A Patient Process
The tree-planting process follows a structured annual cycle, beginning in the spring with the planting of seedlings on property owned by Moore. All told, Elk owns 1,600 acres of land.

Confer and Weldon have learned the tricks of tree planting and have it down to a science. “An awful lot of thought goes into the process,” Confer says.

“Every year we seem to learn something new, upgrade equipment or improve on a process,” says Weldon. “We’ve gotten much better at it over the years. We’ve basically cut the time in half.”

They’ve learned, for example, that it’s best to concentrate their efforts on one trail at a time, and they attempt to transplant between 800 and 1,000 trees each year. About 400 trees can be planted on an acre, each 10 feet apart in order to provide the kind of space they need to flourish. With much work already completed, and with a total of 27 trails in all, they estimate the tree-planting project could last another 10-15 years before the trails are largely evergreen-lined.

“As soon as the lifts close for the winter we start thinking about what needs to get done in terms of our trees,” says Weldon. “It consumes a lot of our time and energy, but it’s definitely a very worthwhile project.”

It all starts on the farm. “We run our tree farm similar to nurseries,” Moore says. After about a dozen years of growth, the trees reach a height of ten feet or so, tall enough to be transplanted from the fields to the mountain.

The crew is busiest in the spring, when prepping for the “dig season” begins in earnest. In early years, random areas were thinned of deciduous trees, and planting locations were scattered around the mountain. Now, Confer and Weldon try to pick a trail and work large sections, removing all deciduous trees and doing a heavy planting—typically 30-40 feet deep along the trail’s edges. The site prep for planting is time-consuming, and the digging crew is busy during the same time, harvesting and digging the mature trees.

The ideal time to dig trees is after the ground has thawed but before the trees start pushing buds. “This depends on the type of spring we have,” says Confer. “We dig trees that have started to bud but do our best to get them back in the ground as quickly as possible.” They can also dig in the fall, usually after the first frost when the trees are dormant, in those areas they couldn’t finish in the spring.

Once dug, balled, and burlapped, a crew begins hauling and staging the trees on the slopes with trucks, trailers, and backhoes, while another crew begins planting on the slopes with the help of a local excavation company. It takes some big equipment to move 800-pound trees up and into place. “Hauling the trees from the fields and replanting them on the ski mountain is the most time-consuming part of the process,” says Moore.

Every four to six years, a portion of the tree fields is re-planted. Perhaps the most arduous aspect during these years is prepping the fields before the seedlings are planted. The work includes grinding up any leftover roots from previous plantings, filling in the holes, and smoothing out the surface using a set of agricultural discs. The field then sits fallow for a year before it’s ready to let the sod return. Because of upgrades in equipment, coupled with the fact that they’ve become more familiar with the process as the years have gone by, the staff can now plant about 1,000 seedlings in a day.

Once the trees begin to grow, they are left undisturbed. However, Weldon and his crew mow the grass between them and prune the branches, which results in much quicker growth.

It’s important to transplant the trees only when they’ve had sufficient time to properly mature, a process that usually takes eight years or more depending upon the weather. Weldon takes the guesswork out of the equation by analyzing the caliper, or diameter, of each tree trunk before it is removed from the ground to be re-planted. “The width of the root ball is determined by the caliper of the tree’s trunk and not the height of the tree,” he says. Weldon estimates their success rate is between 85 and 95 percent.

Undoubtedly the many thousands of loyal Elk skiers appreciate the mountain’s beauty, augmented in large part by the striking spruce trees. The residual side effect of having much needed wind protection is simply icing on the cake. The result is a win-win situation for both Elk and its visitors.