Profiles in Conservation

A Tree Planter’s Dream

People, Newsweek, and Reader’s Digest have all called him an unsung hero. An Associated Press story highlighted his life’s story. Well-wishers from near and far have sent him letters and occasional gifts. And he was once honored by President Ronald Reagan at the White House.

What makes this individual worthy of note is not the number of articles in which his name appears. What makes him stand out from the crowd is his passion for planting trees—but not just for planting’s sake.

Geoffrey Steiner has been planting trees for the past 30 years to honor fallen Vietnam service members. His goal was to plant a tree on behalf of every American Vietnam service member who died or remains missing in action. And unlike most people’s lofty goals, he actually reached and exceeded his goal, planting more than 100,000 trees in all.

His love of trees didn’t begin when he first placed a seedling in the ground. It started much earlier, during childhood.

In 1962, when he was a boy of 12, he lived in northeast Minneapolis. His friend’s neighbor’s dad brought them camping on his hobby farm in Motley, about 15 miles north of where Steiner lives now. That was his very first time in a forest he said, and he was hooked. “I loved the pines. We would go through the pines looking for raccoons.”

Later, Steiner added, he would daydream about going back up there. “I loved the serenity of the place. We were way up in no man’s land: one dirt road and lots of wildlife.”

He said after that, when he joined a national scouting group, he couldn’t wait to go camping. That’s when Steiner picked up on the pines and the woods even more.

Many years later in 1980, after serving in the Vietnam War, Steiner bought some land in rural Cushing, MN. It’s a place that tends not to change much with the times. The sign for Cushing today still reads “Population: 65,” he said.

There was hardly a tree on his land when he purchased it. “When I bought the 100 acres, I had some oaks and poplars,” Steiner said. He had two wooded sections. Mountain ash, maples, and basswood also grew on his acreage then, with ironwood near the bogland. The rest was open fields.

“But just two pines. Just a couple acres were forested then. “

About 30 of his 100 acres are made up of peat bogs. He calls his peat section the “black gold.” A person can grow anything in peat because it’s so rich, he added.

When Steiner, a former marine, first moved there in spring, he lived in a tent. Later in the year he had a mobile home brought in by another veteran.

Steiner recalls the very day he started his planting odyssey. He was remembering two of his fellow marines who died in Vietnam, and he decided to honor their sacrifices by planting a tree for each of them.

“When I was thinking about my friends in Vietnam and what I lost, I started crying, planting a pine tree. Right there, I decided to plant a pine tree for every dead and missing [service member] from the Vietnam War. My tears watered that first tree.  That was Memorial Day in 1980. I can remember the very spot.”

Determined and with his goal in mind, he began to plant more and more trees. He started out by simply reusing locally available resources: tiny seedlings growing naturally under nearby high-power lines. “I decided to take some firs back to my property and plant them there.”

Realizing early on he lacked the knowledge necessary to establish his own forest management plan, he decided to ask for some expert advice.

“I asked for a forester’s help from the U.S. Forest Service, and he came out and helped me. He later gave me a chart in 1981 of how the trees should be planted.”

Then Steiner realized he could save money by ordering tree seedlings instead of searching for them along the roadways. This way he could also increase the diversity of his ever-so-slowly growing forest. “I was looking for cheap ways to plant trees. Gas costs money and finding variety was important.”

“I ordered different types of pines. I liked that smell and the feeling of serenity of walking through pines. If you stand under a Norway pine when the wind’s blowing through it, it makes a cool sound.”

He found out he could order trees from the State agricultural office. “I remember the first ones. I paid 35 cents a tree. I can’t tell you how many trees I ordered over the years,” he added. Now he gets his trees almost exclusively from the State nursery.

He said he’s planted more than 100 varieties of trees over the years.  He had to buy some varieties from different places. He also likes to plant certain trees to attract birds and wildlife.

Planting by hand eventually became tedious and painful for him. “When I plant trees I do it from my knees. It hurts my back to do it otherwise,” he said.

He sought a means of automation to plant trees faster and more efficiently.

“I planted trees alone for years. Then in 1985 I went to the Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and saw you could plant trees behind a tractor, and they would survive better than hand planting. With hand planting, sometimes the sandy soil here would be too dry. I would add a little peat to help it retain moisture.”

“Ever since then, I’ve been planting mostly with the tractor and a tree planter, though I still each year plant some trees in the forest by hand. Days and days each year I still spend hand planting trees in the forest.”

“I take a 5-gallon bucket with a little water and some seedlings with my old Marine Corps entrenching tool. They call it an E-tool, for short. It’s a nice durable tool for planting trees. We also used entrenching tools in Vietnam to dig holes.”

“I try to plant for variety now. If I’m in the forest and I have Norways all around, I might plant a Colorado blue spruce for variety.”

He said whatever nutrients are in place in a spot will help to provide for certain tree types; however, sometimes he adds fertilizer to help certain saplings grow. “I planted apple trees below the bogland. I later bought some tree spikes for the trees and placed them around the drip line of the trees. Eventually I had apple trees.”

Some of what he’s learned he’s gained from trial and error, he added. “In my lowland I had some trees standing in water. I showed the forester. He said they were mountain ash trees and not to cut them down. I never did, except for one.”

Steiner tends to vary planting distances. Some seedlings he’ll plant 2-3 feet apart, while others he might plant 5-6 feet apart.

“If we have too many trees too close together we’ll often give one or more away. I gave seedlings to people and told them to plant them a foot apart. They can always move them later,” he added.

Steiner said he has had help on occasion planting his trees. “I had to find friends over the years to help me. There’s a guy who is 89 today who helps me plant trees. Charles Lent has been helping me since about 1990 or so. It’s a two-person operation to plant the trees using the tree machine. You can put 3,000 trees in a day compared to a few hundred or less a day hand planting.”

Word of his planting dream had begun spreading beyond the confines of rural Cushing.

“AP came out with an article in 1984 that said I was planting trees for every Vietnam vet. Well once the article came, out I had to plant the trees. My phone rang off the hook for days. I got letters from as far away as Germany. “

Later that year, a freelance writer from People magazine came out to interview Steiner. She said she read the AP story about him and that they wanted to honor him as an unsung hero for the Vietnam Forest.

The next year Newsweek made him their “National Unsung Hero for the Forest.” The year after, he was an unsung hero in Reader’s Digest.

“Boy, did the letters come in after that one!” One lady has been writing him ever since, he said. “Then more letters came in, and then I was all the more committed to planting trees.”

After the news media started covering the story, I would get letters from widows who would ask me to plant a tree in honor of their fallen loved ones, he said. “I got all kinds of letters from people who lost loved ones in Vietnam.”

In 1989 he let some other veterans read the letters.  He said he could only read so many of those letters before he started crying. Then he’d go out and plant some more trees. “It’s hard to read some of these letters about their losses,” he added.

Later that year he won the National Arbor Day award. “They even sent me some trees. I got bags from the Arbor Day Foundation with 10 trees in them in a packet.”

He said since then, some of the trees he’s planted have been on behalf of others who want to plant trees, but can’t do it themselves. “When the Arbor Day Foundation gets contributions from people who live in apartments who want to have trees planted, they will approach people like me to plant the trees.”

Spin the hands of time forward to the present, and Steiner’s land has been remarkably transformed. Where once open fields were the norm and hardly a tree could be found, there is now a dense and diverse mostly pine forest with trees ranging from 2- to 60-feet tall.

“All I have left is a 5-acre field; all the rest is woods. I’ve forested roughly 63 acres.” He even has three wild horses running around on his property now.

The 60-year-old Steiner said his success has not come without setbacks. He lost 20,000 trees in the drought of 1987. Gophers, deer, and rabbits all take their toll. “Pocket gophers would chew tree roots underground and kill off a whole row of trees,” he said.

His money also ran short on occasion. His land was nearly foreclosed in 1989, until local good Samaritans raised enough in contributions to keep the bankers away.

He also paid a steep price to his health for his decades outdoors in the woods. “This is the seventh time I’ve come down with Lyme disease,” Steiner said. “The first time was in 1984, before I knew what Lyme was about. It was later diagnosed in 1989. I used to pull off hundreds of ticks. “

Headaches, fevers, and a brain infection were just some of his symptoms. “They put me on antibiotics for months, and then I’d have a relapse. I had shots of penicillin. I had 6 months of bed rest each time.” He has chronic Lyme disease now, he added.

Steiner said he eventually learned how to prevent getting tick bites. Now he always wears his long pants tucked in when he goes out into the woods, and he sprays himself with tick repellent.

His efforts have also yielded personal benefits. Steiner, a psychotherapist and post-traumatic-stress disorder sufferer, said he uses his tree planting as a form of personal therapy. “The data shows when Vietnam vets came back in the early 1970s, they found that they felt serenity in the woods. If you look at the PTSD issues with vets these days, they feel more comfortable in the woods.”

A few years back he did a calculation of his tree planting efforts and he realized he had met his personal goal. “I let the local media know I reached 60,000. I keep planting, though. My ‘guestimate’ is that I planted 100,000.”

Even with the gradual growth of his forest, his tree planting efforts have not slowed down much. He still plants about 6,000 trees a year. There is still work to be done, he added. “I’m all the time managing my forest.”

Steiner returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2000. There, he planted a 3-foot-tall pine tree at the grave site of the former North Vietnamese enemies who died in the Tet Offensive of 1968. It was a battle in which he also fought. The tree is now considered a war memorial there. It had grown to 20 feet tall by 2008.

On his fourth return trip to Vietnam in 2003, along with friends he found the remains of a missing American soldier in the former demilitarized zone where he served. Steiner was the first American Vietnam veteran to find the remains of a missing American service member in the country, he said. The service member had been missing since 1968.

Steiner’s years of hard work and sacrifice have paid off, and his legacy to honor veterans will outlive him. “My land is now called a Vietnam veterans national living memorial. There was a dedication ceremony for it back in the 1980s. It’s listed under Vietnam memorials around the country.”

“I pray for the day one of our remaining 1,776 MIAs from the ‘Nam War will return and walk with his family through this forest, knowing I never forgot,” he added.

Steiner’s claim to fame: Where once an open field stood, there is now a diverse and vibrant forest and a living memorial in honor of fallen and missing Vietnam veterans.

For those interested in contacting Steiner directly, his email address is livemem@brainerd.net.

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