Editor’s note: The USDA Forest Service’s 10-year strategy to address the wildfire crisis and improve forest resilience is not just about mitigating wildfires, but about restoring after a fire . Together, we are working with our partners to reforest areas affected by wildfires.
“Society grows when old people plant trees whose shade they know.w they will never sit. Greek proverb
Up in the Sierra Nevada country, everything moves a little slower. It’s one of the last places in California where the snow melts as spring arrives, and the mixed evergreen forest here grows at a rate measured in generations.
The fire keeps a different clock. What took eons to create is erased in just hours.
Somewhere between these two extremes is when society is most comfortable; the 24-hour clock, the 365-day year. In this space, members of the Groveland Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest are planting more than 42,000 trees a day across the scarred landscape to repair damage from the 2013 Rim Fire.
It’s all part of the US Rim Fire housing and urban development reforestation project – an ambitious plan that seeks to turn back time, undoing much of the damage done.
“I’m under no illusions here,” says Ryan Murdoff, staff officer of natural resources for the Groveland Ranger District. “I will not be able to see the full results of this project. I can only hope that my grandchildren will be able to enjoy this space which has regained its natural beauty.
Murdoff is part of a team of biologists, soil scientists, foresters, silviculturists and other natural resource specialists who have spent the past several years bringing this reforestation project to where the teams are today: shovels in hand ; satchels full of douglas fir, loblolly cedar and sugar pine and ponderosa pine; shuffling through the harsh landscape to plant at a rapid pace.
“I was told we haven’t planted this many trees at once since the complex fire in 1987,” said Christina Wilkinson, Groveland District Culturalist.
Wilkinson’s personal experience with the Rim Fire motivated her to pursue studies in forestry, natural resources and graphical information systems. In 2015, she joined the US Forest Service as a temporary employee and became permanent in February of this year. Wilkinson noted that the shear volume of seedlings needed, coupled with the overwhelming need for seedlings in the western United States, proved a challenge to the team’s efforts.
“We are planting just over 1.3 million seedlings in very rough and unforgiving terrain. Due to the number of fires that have recently occurred in our state, other forests also need seedlings to be planted. We have to rely on getting our trees from our Forest Service nursery in Placerville, which are also very stretched,” she said.
The limited supply of seedlings was just one of the logistical hurdles the team overcame. Since the Rim Fire burned such a wide swath, site selection has become a complex undertaking.
“The interdisciplinary reforestation team looked at the entire Rim Fire footprint to determine which areas we thought needed reforestation and what the desired results would be (we did it one at a time, unit by unit over the course of weeks),” said Curtis Kvamme, Stanislaus National Forest natural resources manager.
Kvamme said the team assesses many factors — the current state of vegetation recovery, soil types, landscape positioning — when determining locations for reforestation. The team also takes care to take into account any cultural or archaeological sensitivities as well as the possible existence of fragile flora.
“In the Rim Environmental Impact Assessment, we identified areas that had the long-term goal of re-supporting a ‘mosaic of old-growth forests,'” Kvamme said. “It may not happen in our lifetime, but the hope is that these areas can mature into high-quality wildlife habitat in the future.”
Teams will be in the field most days with an expected end of planting in mid-April 2022. After that, we will step back and consider the shadow that this team’s efforts will eventually provide as a new generation of trees will grow at a temperate and steady pace. .