Sierra Nevada Ally Story on SPF Oct 31, 2021

As torrential rains replace the wildfires experienced in the western United States this year, conversations on reforestation of the summer’s burned areas in the Sierras have begun by organizations like the Sugar Pine Foundation. 

The Sugar Pine Foundation is a nonprofit organization located in South Lake Tahoe that, since its formation in 2005, has been dedicated to restoring the sugar pine, a coniferous tree found in the central Sierras that can reach heights over 200 feet. Now, with fires and the invasive white pine blister rust impacting more than just the sugar pine, the organization has expanded to forest restoration that includes planting other types of mixed conifer trees in areas fires have impacted. 

Each year, the Sugar Pine Foundation welcomes donations of Jeffrey pine, incense cedar, and sugar pine seeds from the public to take to a nursery to clean, separate by species, and eventually grow. 

“Whenever we want to grow them, we put an order in and tell them how many of what tree we want,” said Maria Mircheva, Executive Director of the Sugar Pine Foundation. “They then take the seeds out of the cooler for them to stratify.” Stratification is a process that mimics the natural conditions seeds go through in the soil during the winter.

“It imitates staying under the snow for three months, so they put them under running water, and then they put them in 34-degree temperatures with a lot of oxygen. Three months later, they plant the seeds about one inch into the soil and then we get the seedlings to plant,” said Mircheva.

Hugh Denno climbs a sugar pine to harvest seeds – photo: Martin Rubio

The organization plants between 10,000 and 20,000 of these seedlings annually in post-fire areas in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin. The survival rate of these seedlings varies, with some areas reaching only 25 percent survival rates and others reaching 85 percent.  According to Mircheva, this variability depends on factors such as the direction of a slope, weather conditions, and competition from other plant species. 

Knowing an area’s burn severity helps restorationists determine where to plant seedlings in the following years post-burn. “In an area where it’s burned so hot that not even the seeds in the ground are alive, these are areas that need to be replanted,” said Mircheva.

A sugar pine cone – photo: the Sugar Pine Foundation

After any wildfire, the U.S. Forest Service initiates a process called BAER – Burned Area Emergency Response. The purpose of this process is to determine what the need is for emergency treatments on federal lands after fires, according to the Forest Service website

For California’s recent Caldor Fire, which started August 14 and was officially contained on October 21, the BAER assessment reports that trees including the white fir and Jeffrey pine were within the fire perimeter. Currently, none of the recommended BAER emergency stabilization treatments involve reforestation, but they do include the removal of hazardous trees to protect trails and soil productivity. 

Volunteers use a slingshot to harvest sugar pine cones to identify trees with a natural genetic resistance to the invasive fungus, – photo: the Sugar Pine Foundation

Foresters on staff at the Forest Service will be responsible for deciding what areas will be replanted and what kinds of trees will be planted at what distance apart. 

According to Mircheva, once this information is decided, the Sugar Pine Foundation may start replanting processes as soon as next year for the areas impacted by the Caldor Fire. 

“We didn’t know the Caldor Fire was going to happen but we have some seedling orders for other fires that we were going to plant, but now we are probably going to use some of them in the Caldor Fire,” said Mircheva. 

As our seedlings grow, we regularly monitor their health to help inform future restoration programs – image courtesy of the Sugar Pine Foundation

Seed donations from the public are still being accepted by the Sugar Pine Foundation – mail them to Sugar Pine Foundation, 1458 Mt. Rainier Drive, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96510; or drop them off at the office’s front door or mailbox. 

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