Almost two years after the Station fire scorched 161,000 acres of the Angeles National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service has embarked on a large-scale reforestation project that may re-engineer the region's historical pine and fir woodlands.
The project to be unveiled Friday aims to plant 3 million pine and fir trees over 10,000 acres scarred by the fire in an attempt to restore the area and offset greenhouse-gas emissions from a refinery in El Segundo.
The campaign is the first major ecological response to a historic arson fire that burned for weeks, claimed the lives of two firefighters and cost more than $95 million to battle, leaving an area roughly the size of Chicago blackened. It was followed by rains that tore chasms through the fragile hillsides and so badly damaged the Angeles Crest Highway that it remains closed to traffic along a key eight-mile stretch, where major repairs cost about $16.5 million.
"This will be the largest recovery effort ever undertaken in the San Gabriel Mountains," Deputy Forest Supervisor Marty Dumpis said. "Our goal is to plant 300 trees per acre on 10,000 acres over the next five years."
But the effort to remake the Angeles National Forest raises fundamental questions once again about human meddling and modification of the region's major watershed, which provides Los Angeles County with 70% of its open space and roughly 35% of its water.
Critics contend that the project could alter the ecological balance of a region dominated by fire-dependent chaparral vegetation surrounding small clusters of native trees in steep canyons. They also worry that federal funding for the project could dry up before it is completed.
The Forest Service says trees are only being planted where trees were before
Significant portions of the 560,000 seedlings to be planted this spring on 4,000 acres were grown from seeds harvested from Coulter pines that evolved in separate mountain ranges, including in the Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests, Forest Service officials said. Although Coulter pines have grown in the San Gabriels, biologists and forest historians suspect that many of them were planted by settlers and are not indigenous.
"If they are planting big-cone Douglas fir forests with Coulter pines, that is not an appropriate form of ecosystem management," said U.S. Geological Survey biologist Jon Keeley.
The Forest Service decided to proceed with the project because there were "not sufficient quantities of seedlings by species to plant according to the pre-fire conditions," said an environmental assessment of the project approved by Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron. Also, the 11,000 acres targeted were "not predicted to recover to forested conditions without intervention," the report said. "The project is in compliance" with the forest's land management plan "and will not result in adverse environmental effects," the report said.
But Forest Service officials conceded that their planting strategy raised the possibility that areas formerly dominated by big-cone Douglas firs, favored by endangered California spotted owls, will come to be dominated instead by the Coulters to be planted in the first round of the project.
"We'll get as close as we can to the species mix that existed before the fire came through, realizing that we may not be 100% or even 80% accurate," Dumpis said of critics' concerns. "Facing arson-caused fires, smog, nonnative weeds and grasses, global warming and millions of annual visitors, we decided it was wiser to move ahead with this project rather than to wait or do nothing at all."
"With careful monitoring, corrective measures and removal of invasive weeds," he added, "we expect to establish an appropriate mix of species over the next five years."
That kind of talk worries Rick Halsey, executive officer of the nonprofit Chaparral Institute in San Diego. "It appears as if trees are being planted based on seedling availability, grants and institutional inertia rather than sound ecological planning," he said.
"In the 1920s, a million trees including exotic Canary Island pines were planted in the San Gabriel Mountains in a misguided effort to fix something that was not a problem — a predominance of native chaparral," Halsey said. "Most of those trees died because of drought. Yet here we go again, wasting money and compromising the ecological balance."
Given the trees' slow growth rate, "no one alive today will still be around to determine whether this reforestation project was the right thing to do," said Ronald D. Quinn, a professor of biology at Cal Poly Pomona and co-author of the Introduction to California Chaparral field guide.
Funding for this year's reforestation effort comes from Chevron, which recently contributed $1.5 million to the South Coast Air Quality Management District to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions resulting from an expansion of its El Segundo refinery.
The Forest Service hopes the project can be managed by corporations and community-based conservation groups led by the service and its nonprofit partner, the National Forest Foundation. The project will be funded through mitigation funds, donations and federal appropriations, Forest Service officials said.
Each component of the project, including tree plantings, weed removal efforts and picnic area improvements, will include public environmental assessments, Forest Service officials said.
A growing army of volunteers has taken up the cause. Among them is Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, 59, executive director of the Community Hiking Club in Newhall. On a recent weekday, she stood on a ridgeline high above Pasadena, breathed reverently and reached out with her hands to embrace the vistas of wildflowers, patches of seedlings and knee-high manzanita cropping up on areas that had been reduced to ashes and charcoal by the Station fire.
"Two years ago, I stood here and cried because from ridgeline to ridgeline, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing left, not even a blade of grass," Erskine-Hellrigel said. "It was hard to imagine these mountains would ever invite wildlife again."
As she spoke, a hawk screeched in the sky. Woodpeckers hunted for insects on the blackened skeletons of oak trees and pines. Swallowtail butterflies fluttered over the "new forest," only a few inches tall, of plants that appear about two years after a wildfire: California poppies, poodle dog bushes and clumps of buckwheat and golden laurel. "I'm all for planting seedlings if it moves this forest forward faster, but I want it done right," she said.
Corina Roberts, 47, a Native American naturalist and supporter of the reforestation project, has taken 27,000 digital photos of the burned areas, creating a visual record of the re-growth over the last two years.
Most of her images are of what she likes to call comeback spots: hummingbirds lapping nectar from wildflowers that flourish in the first spring after a fall fire; tree frogs that somehow survived heat and flames on all sides; green shoots sprouting from charred tree trunks and limbs.
"Nature can and does regenerate on her own," said Roberts, whose photographs are on the Forest Service website. "But I also believe that planting trees can help satisfy a need people have to do something good and important for a forest that was so hideously burned."