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RCD, AFF partnership helping to remake post-fire forestlands

The Butte County Resource Conservation District (RCD) has partnered with American Forest Foundation (AFF) to replant nonindustrial, small privately-owned timberland areas within the Camp Fire burn scar in California.

Although the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic shortened the number of volunteer outings for the project, the conservation district was able to get a volunteer planting in during March, as well as a large-scale planting in with AFF and the Arbor Day Foundation, with nearly 135,000 seedlings planted to help restore the burned landscape.

While plantings are also planned for 2021, there will be areas that will not be restored, in some cases  deliberately, Butte County RCD Forest Health Watershed Coordinator Wolfy Rougle said.

“There’s not enough money, and not a lot of landowners are willing to put in the work needed to manage their lands to do this,” she said. “And that’s okay. In many places, natural regeneration is okay.”

Already, some plants have taken root and are beginning to grow from regeneration after the fire, largely oak species. In the high-severity portions of the Camp Fire mosaic, conifers have not been able to regenerate. That means area forestland will have a different makeup than before the fire. Along with replacing some conifers that burned, the district is planting hardwoods, like oaks and redbuds, that are more fire-resilient and heat-tolerant and are important in reestablishing and increasing wildlife habitat.

“Healthy forests need to burn out here,” Rougle said. “When we’re planting trees, we know we’re planting future fires, so the species we choose, the spacing we choose, the management we choose, is all part of choosing the future fires we’re going to experience.”

“We don’t need to replace every tree,” she said. “Our biggest challenge is to make sure we don’t plant too many trees.”

Rougle estimates another 300,000 trees would bring the area back toward a healthy forest. Managing the areas that revert back to shrubland to ensure future fires are lower-intensity and maintaining the health of the trees that did survive is crucial to rebuilding the forest.

Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, incense cedar and Douglas fir will be among the mix, but those plantings will be done at higher elevations. Lower areas will be covered with oak and other woodlands. Different pockets of land all have their own microclimates with slope and other aspects that will partially dictate the species that will be planted, Rougle said.

“This last century has been really an anomaly at how successful we’ve been at fire suppression,” she said. “The forests that folks remember from childhood are not the future. The future will be more hardwood-dominated, and that’s okay. These trees are really important for wildlife, and they’re more heat-tolerant, so they’re really important for building the resilience of our forests.”

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