A Real-Life Johnny Appleseed Brings a Blackened Land Back to Life in the Mountains of Utah

updated 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/26/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

More than half a century has passed, but Paul Rokich still remembers every detail. He was 6 at the time, standing outside on a moonlit night in Smelter Camp, Utah, the mining community where he was born. Before him lay the Oquirrh Mountains, a once fertile area that had been turned into a desolate moonscape through decades of overgrazing, clear-cut logging and pollution from copper mining operations. Young Rokich spied the lifeless trunks of two Russian olive trees silhouetted atop a lonely ridge. "At that moment I knew without a doubt what my future was," says Rokich, now 57. "I promised myself that, one day, I would climb that mountain and replant those two dead trees."

In 1959, when he was 25, Rokich began to keep his promise, even though that meant trespassing on private land owned by the American Smelting and Refining Co. (later a part of Kennecott Copper). On another moonlit night, he hiked in stealth up Black Rock Canyon, an olive tree seedling in his backpack, a shovel in hand. Once he started he knew there would be no retreat; if he planted one tree, he'd want to plant another. "More than anything I wanted those hills to come alive again," Rokich says. "No matter what it took, I was going to do it."

And so he did, secretly and entirely at his own expense. From his modest earnings as a road construction worker, Rokich budgeted carefully to buy a pine or poplar seedling or two. "Times were tough," he remembers. "I had a wife and three little sons to take care of, but I had to keep planting. When one of my boys was sick, and I was down to $10 in my pocket, I'd spend $5 on medicine and $5 on trees."

For 14 years he confided his obsession to only a trusted few. Then in 1973 Rokich finally "confessed," taking mining officials on a field trip to show them what he had done. Instead of sending for the sheriff, the company was so delighted with his efforts that he was hired on the spot to work full-time to rehabilitate 70,000 acres of barren, long-abused mountain.

Today the evidence of Paul Rokich's determination to renew a once forlorn landscape is everywhere in the Oquirrhs. He has built irrigation systems and planted shrubs, rye grass, wildflowers and, by his estimate, more than 65,000 trees-aspens, poplars, oaks and willows now grown tall. And with the greening of the Oquirrhs, the fauna has returned in abundance. Rabbits, foxes and deer bound across the hills; golden eagles soar lazily in the sky. On a ridge surrounding a 5,000-acre copper-tailing pond, patches of soft alfalfa and bright daffodils greet visitors who pass through Kennecott's entrance gate—set virtually on the spot where a young Rokich stood five decades ago and looked up at those two blackened tree trunks.

Growing up in the mining camp, he had "always wished there was grass to play on and trees to climb; I guess that's why I've always loved everything that was green," Rokich says in explaining his lifelong passion for plants. He recalls a day when a kindly miner held out his sooty hands to give him a packet of petunia seeds for the family's sparse garden, or the time when he was named Arbor Day Boy at the elementary school he attended in Magna, two miles from Smelter Camp. "Whenever my parents would give me a little money, I'd catch a bus to Salt Lake City and buy me a couple of rose bushes to plant outside my house or school."

Aside from the flowers, there was little that bloomed brightly in Paul's hard-scrabble early life. "From the age of 6, I was working, scrubbing onions in a grocery store," says Rokich, the fifth in a family of seven children. His father, who worked at the smelter, died of pneumonia when Paul was 13. "After that I worked at night after school, setting out markers so the mining trucks could see where to go in the dark. I took home $47 a week and gave it to my mother. I felt lonely; there was never time for much fun."

Four years after that, his mother died of complications from diabetes. Paul finished high school, served two years in the Army in West Germany, then returned to enter the University of Utah, where he majored in botany and dated a classmate named Ann Simpson. They married in 1957 and started a family that soon expanded to three sons (Paul Jr., now 32, Ted, 31, and Tom, 29). The couple's finances became so stretched that both Paul and Ann were forced to drop out of college, he to work in road building, while she became a secretary at the university.

Through all those years, however, Paul Rokich never forgot his childhood vow. This was in an era long before ecological awareness, before land reclamation was widely practiced. When Rokich began his solitary effort, professional botanists and professors at the University of Utah "all thought I was crazy," he says. "They told me it couldn't be done; the land was too eroded, beyond hope for reclamation. I set out to prove them wrong."

"Paul never told me much about his grand dream, and I never asked," says Ann Rokich, 53. "He'd say, 'Well, I'm going hiking, and while I'm up there, I might as well plant these trees.' There was never extra money, and we had a constant financial struggle." She remembers one Christmas when the total gift budget for all five Rokiches came to just $25. "But I knew that these mountains were important to him," she adds. "He isn't the type to gloat. All his life he's gone about his planting silently, and he's lived to see the fruit of what he did."

There were setbacks, of course. Rokich once watched 1,000 fir seedlings go up in smoke from a fire set by a careless sheep rancher. On numerous occasions, gully-washer thunderstorms have uprooted his plantings. "But I didn't give up," he says.

Today he is a familiar sight, bumping along the back roads in his worn-but-trusty pickup truck. With Kennecott's support, Rokich has gained access to the company greenhouse and planting equipment. Still, he usually prefers to work alone, though he often takes neighborhood kids along to teach them the simple pleasures of woodlands and wildlife. "I don't need the fancy stuff," he says. "I've planted most of this land with a five-gallon bucket." Sometimes he'll use a mule to haul seedlings to the high country. "Up here I'm in tune with nature. I'd sit here and watch the cottontails frolic in the grass and listen to coyotes howl, and sometimes I see a big old bobcat. Several years ago I made friends with an old elk I named Billy who came to see me nearly every night while I was planting. One night I found Billy dead beneath my Russian olive tree. He must have known that was the first tree I ever planted."

Someday, Rokich concedes, his planting days will have to end. When that happens, he hopes that there will be time to go back to college. "I have interests in philosophy and Latin," he says. His wife is setting an example as a "born-again student." With their boys now grown, Ann Rokich has returned to the classroom to work toward a bachelor's degree in communications.

Paul Rokich, however, isn't quite through with his "botanizing"—not yet. He is an early riser who toils into the night. "I've got to keep going; there isn't time for small talk," he tells a visitor. "You know, for every minute wasted in this world, somebody could have planted a tree. This is the only Earth we've got, and we've got to take care of it. We're running out of second chances."

—Dan Chu, Cathy Free in the Oquirrh Mountains

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