Federal forester Steve Bear stood on a fire-stripped slope of the San Gabriel Mountains last week, trying to find just one pine sapling, any sapling, pushing through the bright green bedspread of vegetation.
It would give him hope after a year of disappointment.
Last April, U.S. Forest Service crews planted nearly a million pine and fir trees to try to reclaim land scorched clean by the devastating Station fire. Most of them shriveled up and died within months, as skeptics had predicted.
"That's too bad," said Bear, resource officer for the service's Los Angeles River Ranger District, shaking his head in disappointment. "When we planted seedlings, conditions were ideal in terms of soil composition and temperature, rainfall and weather trends. Then the ground dried out and there just wasn't enough moisture after we planted."
Foresters estimate that just a quarter of the 900,000 seedlings planted across 4,300 acres are thriving. That is far below the 75% to 80% survival rate the agency wanted.
On most slopes, instead of small trees, the ground nurtures dense shrubs and grass in the shadows of skeletal dead trees scorched by the 2009 blaze.
The most ambitious recovery effort ever attempted in the Angeles National Forest began with a promise to plant up to 3 million seedlings over five years across 11,000 acres charred by the worst fire in Los Angeles County history. Although intense sun and wind-dried soil were the main reasons seedlings died, other unforeseen challenges are forcing the Forest Service to scale back its plans.
The agency now realizes that much of the terrain is too remote, rocky and steep for reforestation. "That was an unreasonably optimistic target based on a rapid assessment of the landscape," Bear said of the original plan. The goal now is to plant enough seedlings so that five years from now, 900,000 trees will be growing on 4,400 acres.
Skeptics had expected problems because the plan conflicted with the natural state of Angeles National Forest.
"The reality we live in is a Mediterranean climate, and there is just not enough water to create what they have in mind," said Rick Halsey, founder and president of the California Chaparral Institute in San Diego. "I do not believe they will succeed because this is Southern California, not rain-drenched Oregon."
In 2009, 70% of the land was chaparral and just 23% was forest. The rest was either riparian or desert. The Station fire, which covered 161,000 acres, or nearly 25% of the land, triggered the birth of chaparral plants that require fire to germinate. Critics warned that revived patches of chaparral would compete with seedlings for nutrients.
In addition, most of last year's plantings were from Coulter pine seeds harvested from trees that evolved in other mountain ranges, including the Cleveland, Los Padres and San Bernardino national forests. Although Coulter pines have grown in the San Gabriels, biologists and forest historians suspect that many were planted by settlers and are not indigenous.
Forest Service officials say they aren't trying to establish forest cover over the entire San Gabriel range, but only to restore the pockets of trees that existed before the blaze.
The agency realized that the trees planted last year didn't mirror those found on the slopes before the fire. But the Forest Service said in an environmental assessment last year that it had little choice. Soil on the 11,000 acres chosen for reforestation was burned too deep for natural regeneration. Without rapid intervention, chaparral would probably choke off any new trees.
The agency couldn't gather enough seedlings of various species to duplicate those burned by the fire, so it chose to go with a mixture of plants that were available.
By September, surveys showed survival rates of only 22% for Coulter pines, 18% for Big Cone Douglas firs and 40% for Ponderosa pines, officials said.
This year, the agency has planted 155,000 seedlings — all from seeds collected exclusively from trees that evolved in the Angeles National Forest.
Most of the seedlings planted below an elevation of about 4,000 feet died. Survival rates were highest for seedlings planted a few yards apart in the high country.
On Monday, Bear drove to Barley Flats in the upper elevations to see seedlings surviving in an area reduced to charcoal. "These little guys are in pretty good shape," he said with a smile. "Ten years from now, they'll be 5 or 6 feet high."
Much of the funding for last year's reforestation came from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. The district provided $1.5 million from money Chevron gave the district to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions resulting from expansion of its El Segundo refinery. About $900,000 of the total was spent on last year's plantings. The remaining $600,000 is expected to fund renewed efforts to plant seedlings in many of the same areas.
"I would describe this as a setback, but we are a long way from completion of this project," said Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the air quality district.
The district's contract with the Forest Service requires planting enough trees over the next five years to remove 280,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the life span of the trees, AQMD spokesman Sam Atwood said. If the Forest Service and its nonprofit partner, the National Forest Foundation, can't meet that requirement through trees, they will have to procure carbon dioxide offsets from elsewhere, Atwood said.
"We can always do better, and we're learning as we go," National Forest Foundation spokesman Vance Russell said in an interview.
He also said that the planting of seedlings is just a beginning.
"Volunteers need to understand that tree plantings are the fun and easy part of reforestation efforts," Russell said. "The most important part is the weeding, watering and management required later."