Paul Rokich is my hero. When Paul was a boy growing up in Utah, he happened to live near an old copper smelter and the sulfur dioxide that poured out of the refinery had made a desolate wasteland out of what used to be a beautiful forest.
When a young visitor one day looked at this wasteland and saw that there was nothing living there. No animals, no trees, no grass, no bushes, no birds...nothing but fourteen thousand acres of black and barren wasteland that even smelled bad.
Well, this kid looked at the land and said, "This place is crummy." Paul knocked him down. He felt insulted. But he looked around him and something happened inside him. He made a decision. Paul vowed that some day he would bring back life to this barren wasteland.
Many years later, Paul was in the area and he went to the smelter office. He asked if they had any plans to bring the trees back. The answer was "No." He asked if they would let him try to bring the trees back. Again, the answer was "No." They didn't want him on their land. He realized he needed to be more knowledgeable before anyone would listen to him, so he went to college to study botany.
At the college he met a professor who was an expert in Utah's ecology. Unfortunately, this expert told Paul that the wasteland he wanted to bring back was beyond hope. He was told that his goal was foolish because even if he planted trees and even if they grew, the wind would only blow the seeds forty feet per year and that's all you'd get because there weren't any birds or squirrels to spread the seeds and the seeds from those trees would need another thirty years before they started producing seeds of their own.
Therefore, it would take approximately twenty thousand years to revegetate that six-square-mile piece of earth. His teachers told him it would be a waste of his life to try to do it. It just couldn't be done.
So he tried to go on with his life. He got a job operating heavy equipment, got married and had some kids. But his dream would not die. He kept studying up on the subject and he kept thinking about it. And then one night he got up and took some action. He did what he could with what he had.
This was an important turning point. As Samuel Johnson wrote, "It is common to overlook what is near, by keeping the eye fixed on something remote. In the same manner, present opportunities are neglected and attainable good is slighted, by minds busied in extensive ranges."
Paul stopped busying his mind in extensive ranges and looked at what opportunities for attainable good, were right in front of him. Under the cover of darkness, he sneaked out into the wasteland with a backpack full of seedlings and started planting. For seven hours, he planted seedlings. He did it again a week later.
Every week, he made his secret journey into the wasteland and planted trees, shrubs and grass. But most of it died. Freezing winds, blistering heat, landslides, floods, fires and carelessness destroyed his work time and time again, but he kept planting.
One night he found a highway crew had come and taken tons of dirt for a roadgrade and all the plants he had painstakingly planted in that area, were gone. Paul cried. But week after week, year after year, for 15 years, he just kept planting.
The old copper smelter got tired of running him off, took out insurance on him and gave him permission. Later, as times were changing and there was political pressure to clean up the environment, the company actually hired Paul to do what he was already doing and they provided him with machinery and crews to do it with. By this time Paul knew more about the ecology of this abandoned piece of land than anyone else on the planet.
Slowly, very slowly, things began to take root. Gophers appeared, then rabbits and then porcupines...a wide variety of wildland and wetland creatures began to move in.
Now the place is fourteen thousand acres of forest and wetlands, rich with eagle and elk, and every variety of little creature, native to Utah, live there. Paul Rokich has received every environmental award, the State of Utah has to offer.
He says, "I thought that if I got this started, when I was dead and gone people would come and see it. I never thought I'd live to see it myself..." It took him until his hair turned white, but he managed to keep that impossible dream, that started when he was a child.
What was it you wanted to do, that you thought was impossible? Paul's story sure gives a perspective on things, doesn't it?
The way you get something accomplished in this world is to just keep planting. Just keep working. Just keep plugging away at it one day at a time for a long time, no matter who criticizes you, no matter how long it takes, no matter how many times you fall.
Get back up again. And just keep planting.
"Self Help Stuff That Really Works"
On the left, the green fields were tailings ponds last year. The ponds were "pinched off" and planted to grasses. Cattle and wildlife now graze the area. To the right of the green fields are active tailings ponds. In the background is Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Various tree species are also used to vegetate the tailings ponds, including Salix and Populus species and occasionally tamarisk on very difficult sites. The vegetated tailings ponds provide habitat for many species of wetland birds as well.