Last April, U.S. Forest Service crews planted nearly a million pine and fir trees across thousands of acres scorched clean by the devastating 2009 blaze. Most of them shriveled up and died within months, as skeptics had predicted.
Federal forester Steve Bear stood on a fire-stripped slope of the San Gabriel Mountains last week, trying to find just one pine sapling, any sapling, pushing through the bright green bedspread of vegetation.
It would give him hope after a year of disappointment.
Last April, U.S. Forest Service crews planted nearly a million pine and fir trees to try to reclaim land scorched clean by the devastating Station fire. Most of them shriveled up and died within months, as skeptics had predicted.
“That’s too bad,” said Bear, resource officer for the service’s Los Angeles River Ranger District, shaking his head in disappointment. “When we planted seedlings, conditions were ideal in terms of soil composition and temperature, rainfall and weather trends. Then the ground dried out and there just wasn’t enough moisture after we planted.”
Foresters estimate that just a quarter of the 900,000 seedlings planted across 4,300 acres are thriving. That is far below the 75% to 80% survival rate the agency wanted.
On most slopes, instead of small trees, the ground nurtures dense shrubs and grass in the shadows of skeletal dead trees scorched by the 2009 blaze.
The most ambitious recovery effort ever attempted in the Angeles National Forest began with a promise to plant up to 3 million seedlings over five years across 11,000 acres charred by the worst fire in Los Angeles County history. Although intense sun and wind-dried soil were the main reasons seedlings died, other unforeseen challenges are forcing the Forest Service to scale back its plans.
The agency now realizes that much of the terrain is too remote, rocky and steep for reforestation. “That was an unreasonably optimistic target based on a rapid assessment of the landscape,” Bear said of the original plan. The goal now is to plant enough seedlings so that five years from now, 900,000 trees will be growing on 4,400 acres.
Skeptics had expected problems because the plan conflicted with the natural state of Angeles National Forest.