In the wake of the Station Fire, two massive tree planting efforts got under way in the burn areas of the Angeles National Forest. One, Forest Aid, is a project spearheaded by the non profit group Tree People; the other is a project undertaken by the US Forest Service.
The high mortality rate of the hand-planted seedlings has recently been the topic of newspaper articles and editorials, most pointing to the lack of follow-up care...watering...of the seedlings being the reason for their mortality. There are, in fact, a number of reasons why hand-planted seedlings don’t fare well, and water is certainly one of them.
The Forest Recovery Project began shortly after the Station Fire, documenting the natural recovery of the forest from the blaze, but when massive tree planting efforts began it was inevitable that natural and man-made recovery would overlap, and I have been able to observe, and glean valuable insight, from both.
There are two philosophies about planting seedlings. One is to create a clearing around the tree so that it has no competition for sunlight, water or nutrients. The other is to plant the seedling in the company of a larger plant or plants, and/or next to a rock or fallen log, so that it is at least partially sheltered and protected from the elements.
Many of the trees in the Angeles were planted using the first method. Many if not most of these seedlings did not survive. They are easy to identify by the large swath of cleared ground around them (and the dead seedling in the center). Trees which were planted in the presence of some sort of protective element tended to have a better chance at survival. This is true for naturally occurring seedlings as well.
Planting is usually done in the spring. This may very well be the greatest drawback to the human approach to reforestation. Seedlings need to establish their root system before they can withstand periods of drought, and only planting in fall and winter (and only in wet years) will allow them time to do that. This is why many plants that reproduce by seed drop their seed in the late summer and fall. If it takes two years for a seedling to develop a strong root system inside of a container, how will it be able to force its way through hard forest soil in a week or two after being transplanted? It won’t.
Poodle Dog Bush - ultimate protector
Poodle dog bush, a poisonous fire follower that many of us had never seen before, tends to grow most dense in the most severe burn areas where there are conifer trees. The plant has a fuzzy-headed appearance, with thick stems hosting thin, serrated, hair-covered leaves clustered in a sort of ball; as the plant grows taller, the ball shape remains at the head of each stem while the lower leaves die back, giving it the appearance of a show cut on a standard poodle. It acts as a nursery plant for conifer seedlings, warding away herbivores and humans, offering a veil of filtering shade that allows seedlings to get sunlight without getting cooked by the sun.
For naturally occurring seedlings, poodle dog bush is a lifesaver; for hand-planted seedlings which were placed in the soil while the poodle dog bush was small, it can be the opposite, preventing the fragile hand-planted seedling from getting any sort of after-planting care.
One of the popular justifications for non profit efforts at reforestation was that trees would be planted only in areas where the forest had been so severely burned that natural recovery was impossible. Even in the most severe burn areas, natural recovery is under way, at the level appropriate for the condition of the soil to support life. This happened very rapidly in some areas, and slower in others. No effort to force the natural process would be successful; to plant trees in soil that could not yet support growth, or on barren ground where they would be scorched to death in days was an inappropriate response.
By August 2010, the challenge was not finding burned areas to plant trees, but finding burned areas that were not already covered with tens of thousands of naturally occurring seedlings. Since there was no place where natural recovery was impossible, the hand-planted seedlings were planted amidst the naturally occurring ones. Shortly thereafter, thick stands of poodle dog bush took over the landscape, and the hand-planted trees were then on their own.
Technology versus Indigenous Wisdom
Humans have been planting trees for a very long time. Native Americans have a long-standing relationship with the pinon tree, producer of pine nuts, a nutritious, delicious food source.Pinon is one of the few conifer species that actually depends on birds and mammals for propagation. Pinon seeds are cached by birds and rodents, and native people would plant a portion of their harvest in good years to insure that there would always be a supply of pine nuts, and to give thanks for the food the trees gave them.
Raising seedlings for planting is a relatively modern method of addressing reforestation, and its limitations are becoming obvious in the wake of the Station Fire. No matter how healthy their root system is, the tap root is growing in response to a container, not to its permanent environment. A seed placed directly into that environment will, upon germination, quickly find a source of moisture with its tap root and then send other roots out to find nutrients and anchor itself securely in its habitat.
Companion, protecting or nursery plants are a vital element for the survival of seedlings. We know little about the symbiotic relationships between the fire follower plants and the trees that grow in their shelter, and would do well to spend time learning about these.
Fire in the wilderness is not an “if”, it is a “when”. Fire is an essential part of the long term health of natural ecosystems, and when it is suppressed for long periods of time, the end result is catastrophic, uncontrollable fires that burn incredibly hot and alter landscapes and lives. The natural recovery of the Angeles National Forest is in full swing and includes millions of naturally occurring tree seedlings. There are lessons to be learned both from the natural recovery, and the failure of human efforts at reforestation.
The Forest Recovery Project began in the winter of 2009 in the aftermath of the Station Fire in the Angeles National Forest. The goal of this effort is to document the natural recovery of the forest from the fire and use these images to educate agencies and citizens about the vital role that fire plays in the long term health of the environment. We have spent the last one hundred years completely devoted to preventing wild land fires, and now we find ourselves in a difficult place. When fires do break out (and eventually, they do) they are uncontrollable and catastrophic. How can we re-integrate fire into our management strategies? Can we accept that fire is an important and necessary element in our treasured landscapes? The Angles National Forest offers us ample proof that nature can and does recover from fire, and in many cases thrives in its aftermath. Ralphs and Food 4 Less have made a contribution that will allow us to place the images on the web, where they will be accessible to everyone. The Los Angeles County Fire Division of Forestry and the US Forest Service, Angeles National Forest commend the educational, artistic and scientific goals of the project. The Forest Recovery Project is sponsored, in part, by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors through the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Redbird, creator of the Forest Recovery Project, is a 501(c)(3) non profit Native American and environmental association. For more information contact us: www.RedbirdsVision.org, on Facebook via our RedbirdsVision page or the Forest Recovery Project Facebook group, or via email at email@example.com