A 50-acre patch of Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest land scorched during a controlled burn last summer will become home to a new stand of sugar pine seedlings rarely found in the dense hills overlooking Ashland.
The too-hot burn killed several large “legacy” trees that the 220-acre burn was meant to protect and opened up far more forest canopy than intended by the Ashland Forest Resiliency Stewardship Project.
But it turns out these now open and sun-filled areas constitute optimal habitat for sugar pine seedlings. So AFR officials are planning to make lemonade out of the lemons left there by planting up to 2,000 young sugar pines.
“There’s an opportunity here,” said Chris Chambers, spokesman for the multi-agency AFR, which includes private partners such as The Nature Conservancy.
Sugar pines were targeted heavily by early logging in Southern Oregon, and while some pockets of isolated sugar pines remain, young seedlings are rarely seen here, said Chambers, who is Ashland Fire & Rescue’s forest division chief.
Seedlings generally fight losing battles against thick forest over-stories and other competition, compounded by attacks from a non-native fungus called blister rust.
“It has cut out whole generations of reproduction of big trees by killing the seedlings,” Chambers said.
The 2,000 sugar pines tapped for this planting were grown at the Forest Service’s J. Herbert Stone Nursery outside of Central Point from seeds from wild trees that are naturally resistant to blister-rust, Chambers said.
They were paid for by a $1,500 donation by the Penny Pines Program, a National Garden Club program that funds reforestation.
AFR leaders plan to use an army of volunteers to plant the trees during a work party from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 7. Interested people can RSVP by emailing afrpartners@ashland.or.us or by calling Sara Jones at 541-552-2218.
Forest Service foresters surveying the area believe not all 2,000 trees will fit in the 50 acres of scorched lands, Chambers said. Those left over will be planted in nearby open areas, he said.
Sugar pines, which naturalist John Muir called the “king of all conifers,” are well adapted to dry climates and regular, low-intensity wildfires, so AFR leaders have considered them a key species in sustaining forests in an ever-warming climate.
“Planting the pines doesn’t fix the problem,” said Darren Borgias of The Nature Conservancy. “It’s something we need to be doing in general.”
When contract crews in July touched off the controlled underburn, the fire burned more intensely in some areas, scorching portions of the forest canopy within the 220-acre project.
Since then, about 80 larger “legacy trees” of multiple subspecies of firs and pines have died, most of them in the 50 scorched acres, Borgias said. The loss constituted about 16 percent of the larger, higher-value trees in the entire controlled burn area, Borgias said.
“We overshot and we’re all swallowing our pride and incorporating lessons learned,” Borgias said.
Those lessons include more pre-burn mechanical thinning of brush and woody material, creating smaller piles for burning, keeping piles farther away from legacy trees and moving more slowly during the actual burning process, forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons said.
“We probably went a little too fast,” Gibbons said. “This year, we’ll step back and slow down a little bit.“
Launched in 2009, AFR is a partnership involving the Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, the city of Ashland and the nonprofit Lomakatsi Restoration Project to address wildfire fuel loads that have altered the watershed.
The project seeks to reduce potential wildfire intensity while protecting Ashland’s drinking water, improving forest health and other goals, including protecting or enhancing habitat used by, among other animals, northern spotted owls and Pacific fishers.
So far, the project has treated more than 10,000 acres of land within the Ashland watershed, and plans are to extend that to 14,000 acres within 52,000 acres surrounding Ashland and the municipal watershed.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.