Ironworker’s love of trees restores county

Lionel Johnston of Shell Beach
courtesy photo
soco beat 02-10-10
Lionel Johnston of Shell Beach Permaculture courtesy photo soco beat 02-10-10

Permaculture is one of those words that we keep hearing and reading about, but many of us are not sure exactly what it means.

In fact, my computer puts a red line under it because it doesn’t recognize it as a word. But Lionel Johnston of Shell Beach knows what it means: permanent landscaping that is self-sustaining and benefits humans and wildlife.

Johnston is a retired ironworker who is in love with trees, especially trees that are native to the Central Coast and will grow here easily with little water.

He has given away 30,000 trees in San Luis Obispo County during the last 20 years, including various oaks, cypress, redwoods, sycamore and Catalina cherry.

These trees all have value for wildlife — food (especially acorns), leaf litter (good for the red-legged frog and slider turtles) and in the taller trees, a spot for nesting raptors to roost. On the other side are “hybridized” trees, those that have been bred to bear no fruit and are not useful to animals or humans. I planted one such tree in my yard recently, not knowing any better.

One Cool Earth is the nonprofit group that Johnston founded 15 years ago with Chris and Sue Elliot of Morro Bay. It’s purpose is to gather acorns and other tree seeds, grow them in containers and then plant them at such places as Lopez Lake, Cuesta College, Cal Poly and Whale Rock Reservoir.

He has teamed with Cal Poly students, rangers at Lopez Lake, Friends of Lopez Lake, Connie Sparks, teacher of environmental horticulture at Arroyo Grande High School, and others.

Twenty years ago, he planted 58 live-oak trees on the Cuesta campus. They take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air, diminishing pollutants.

One Cool Earth came into existence for two purposes: first was the gathering of seeds, the planting, growing and then giving away of trees; second was the educating of people about the first by reaching out to the public about the importance of planting native trees.

Students from Arroyo Grande High School and Cal Poly gathered acorns from Lopez Lake in the fall of 2008. They will soon be going back to plant the saplings.

The students get community service credit for this. Sparks said the students can take one home to plant in their own yard, if desired. Students from the Grizzly Youth Academy for at-risk students also often help with the plantings.

The tree planting at Lopez Lake is set for 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 20.

Meet in the park entrance parking lot. There will be no park fee, and the public is invited.

As an ironworker, Johnston helped build bridges, dams, the Space Launch Complex 6 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and the Kennedy Library and architecture building at Cal Poly.

As a retired volunteer, he is building live forests for the benefit of generations to come.

“The wealth is in the satisfaction of seeing these young people doing something positive and life creating that they carry forward with them,” Johnston said.

For more information about tree plantings, call Johnston at 801-0668, or go to www.onecoolearth.org.

The South County Beat appears every other week. Anyone with story ideas involving interesting people in the South County can reach Gayle Cuddy at 489-1026 or nightengayles@aol.com.