Shaded by the forests he planted

Abraham Franco frequently finds himself walking under the shade of forests that exist today because of his handiwork decades ago.

A veteran worker in Oregon’s reforestation industry, the 60-year-old Salem resident has planted millions of trees in Oregon’s woods and wetlands.

“I remember the units I worked on more than 20 years ago,” he says. “The forest, I remember when it was a twig.”

As a crewmember for his nephew’s company, R. Franco Restoration, Franco spends many of his workdays along the Willamette River and its tributaries, planting trees and shrubs on the streambanks in an effort to restore the basin’s natural ecosystem and improve the river’s health.

Abraham Franco reaches into his hip sack to select a sapling for planting.

Dozens of people do this work, but Franco’s deep experience gives him an outsized reputation among his colleagues. They refer to him as an elder statesman of the industry, praising both his work ethic and his conservation ethos.

Franco demurs. He insists he’s just doing his job.

Franco got his start in the Cascade timberlands, replanting stands of Douglas fir after logging companies harvested the lumber. When his nephew, Rosario Franco, grew old enough to work, Abraham became his mentor.

Years later, Rosario would open one of the Willamette Basin’s most prominent restoration companies, and Abraham would become one of his first employees.

I taught him how to plant in the mountains,” Abraham says, “and he showed me how to plant down here.”

After spending the first part of his career planting trees that would eventually be felled for lumber, Franco savors the permanence of restoration planting. Nearly 30 years in the business have given him firsthand knowledge of why his work matters. These trees, he knows, will remain in place for generations to clean the water, shade it from the sun’s heat and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.

Abraham Franco lifts a bundle of bare-root saplings, preparing to dip them in a bucket of water before planting them along a tributary of the Santiam River.

The work is rewarding but difficult. Wielding a shovel all day, sometimes in soil dense with clay or mottled with rocks, can wear on muscles and joints. Prime planting season also happens to align with the Northwest’s cold, rainy, windy winters.

Franco shrugs at those challenges. On a recent rainy day, he outpaced men in their twenties as the crew planted rows of willow on an Aumsville farm.

“You get used to whatever weather comes,” he said. “You’ve gotta go and do the job.”

As he worked, Franco reflected on what this place used to be. Where invasive blackberries and ivy used to thrive, the streambanks now host a nascent native woodland that will only grow healthier with time.

“I don’t know if I’ll be around when this one becomes a forest,” Franco said as he dug into his satchel for another sapling, “but that idea motivates me every day.”