ORANGE, Calif. – They met in an emergency room. She was a nurse, and he was a doctor. His most distinguishing trait, she remembers, was that he often wore roller blades when he made his rounds.

They resuscitated people together.

She thought he was nutty up until the moment she began dating him.

Then, she thought he was nuttier.

He carried his shotgun on their second date. And he wore rattlesnake protection boots. He took her for a walk in a grove of pines in a Christmas tree farm he owned. His intention was to shoot any slithering thing that came close.

He loved – as Susan, his future wife, would find out – walking through the trees.

That was more than 25years ago.

Before his tree obsession really kicked in.

Steve Morenz plants trees.

No, that doesn’t come close to describing what he does. Steve Morenz really plants a lot of trees. Another try: Steve Morenz plants so many trees that you SUV drivers, you carbon-dioxide spewers, can breathe a little easier – literally.

Morenz, still an ER doctor at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital (the roller blades faded with the 1980s), estimates he has planted 550,000 trees, including the 250 around his home in Orange Park Acres. As a comparison, the 2004 Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, organized a group of impoverished women who planted 30 million trees in Kenya’s increasingly arid soil.

Morenz works alone, but his sentiment is the same.

Morenz, 57, owns 950 acres of hilly, eroded, no-longer-bountiful farmland in California, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota and West Virginia, where he calls the land “Almost Heaven.” He has planted an average of 600 trees per acre. He receives government funding from the Conservation Reserve Program to help afford the lands he buys.

Several times each year, Morenz hops on a plane and heads for his land, like some latter-day Johnny Appleseed. Before Sept. 11, 2001, he traveled with a chain saw, so he could clear vines and diseased trees from his properties.

He was Forester of the Year in Decatur County, Iowa, several years ago.

“I’m a very understanding wife,” says Susan Morenz, who smiles when she remembers the poem he wrote to her comparing their relationship to the roots of a tree.

He calls his family – wife, three sons and a daughter – his moss, which in tree parlance is a good thing.

“He’s nutty, but I love it,” Susan says.

Steve Morenz is a one-man assault on the greenhouse effect, creating a sky-full of good air to combat the stuff that contributes to global warming.

“I love being on the right side of the carbon cycle,” Morenz says with a smile.

He grew up in Kentucky and Ohio, and after he got his medical degree at Ohio State, he moved to California. But something was missing.

“I moved here from a forested area, and here, I don’t get that utter joy I get from walking through rugged forested land,” Morenz says.

As an adult, he went back to Ohio and visited a friend who showed him the view from “a hill overlooking the wooded countryside.”

That’s the moment Morenz became obsessed.

So he decided to create that kind of wooded land for himself. He picked the most barren, remote and cheapest land around the United States and began planting spruce, walnut, ash, redwood, pine and other trees. He actually likes to watch trees grow. And, of course, there’s the walking.

“When I’m walking through a beautiful forest, I feel like a 10-year-old kid who has discovered heaven,” he says.

His family brings him back down to earth.

“Our kids are completely, 100 percent uninterested in what he does,” Susan Morenz says. “They tell him, “Don’t worry, Dad, when you die, we’ll sell your tree ranches.”‘

Steve laughs.

“They tell me they’re going to buy Ferraris,” he says.

His goal is not only making the air easier to breath, but – in the long term – making money. If he stays in the government conservation program long enough, he may eventually turn a profit for preserving the land. He also wants his forests to be harvested and replanted someday. He thinks the wood, especially from his walnut groves, can be sold for a larger profit.

But big profit is something he will not likely see in his lifetime.

“I’m fortunate I don’t have to rely on tree farming for my day-to-day income,” he says. “The three qualities you must have to be a tree planter are: patience, patience and patience.”

Dean Varian, another doctor/tree planter in Ohio, says Morenz’ hobby matches his personality.

“He has no Type-A features at all,” Varian says. “He’s Type-B. He never gets rattled about anything.”

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Morenz’ Orange Park Acre home is a tree haven. His pride and joy are four redwoods, two of which are about 40 feet tall. They’ll grow, he says, to be 100 feet.

“It is a miracle that those monster trees start out as a wafer-thin tiny seed,” Morenz says.

One of these days in the not-to-distant future, he’s going to put a log cabin in one of his forests. It will be the first dwelling on any of his tree land.

He can already see it in his mind. He will have a view of Mt. Shasta. 600 square feet of living space. Solar power. Water purification system. Television, so he can watch the Weather Channel. He loves watching the weather in the regions where he has forests.

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Trees are Morenz’s thing. Other than the Arbor Day Foundation, he doesn’t belong to any organization. He’s not a political animal. No Green or Save the Whale Groups. He talks for two hours straight and never mentions a political candidate or a cause.

You will not see him chaining himself to a tree that is about to be cut down.

“I’m too busy planting trees,” he says.

He doesn’t have a group of followers or a Web site. He’s just Steve, walking through the rugged forest he created.



(c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

Visit the Register on the World Wide Web at http://www.ocregister.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): treeguy

AP-NY-11-05-04 0618EST



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