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Out of the Ashes: Opportunities and Challenges after a California Megafire

Burn scars stretching across wide swathes of forested landscape are a familiar sight for any Californian today, but we treat them much like we might a scar on the body: we avert our eyes in passing and focus our energy elsewhere, only occasionally giving in to morbid fascination and staring outright.

And yet, like bodily scars, burn scars can surprise in their beauty. I contemplated this beauty while lying on my stomach in charred soil, examining the largest patch of fawn lilies I’d ever seen.

I was deep in the footprint of the 2020 August complex, a million-acre fire that when it burned was the largest in recorded California history. Nearly two years later, I had returned with my colleagues from Shasta-Trinity National Forest to assist with one of the greatest acts of hope we can undertake as land managers: planting trees.

Wildfire has always been part of the California landscape, and for many tree species it is a harbinger of new growth: a burned landscape means seedlings can get the water and sunlight they need to thrive, and many of California’s trees are adapted to live with frequent fire events. However, the scale of wildfire is changing with the climate. Studies find that natural conifer regeneration is low across many landscapes, especially dry, low-elevation forests. Loss of forest cover is a concern for many reasons, including loss of habitat and carbon storage, as well as social costs such as recreational and aesthetic values. In the face of climate change, many areas that were once coniferous forest may need to adapt to more drought-adapted landscapes such as oak woodland or chaparral.

It is up to scientists and land managers to determine which forests are likely to recover on their own, which should be targeted for reforestation, and which should be assisted in adaptation.

Coordinated research efforts and spatial analysis technologies are helping with this seemingly impossible task. A tool called POSCRPT (Post-Fire Spatial Conifer Regeneration Prediction Tool), published in 2020 by researchers from University of California, Davis, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), CAL FIRE, and the U.S. Forest Service, helps identify what parts of a burn are likely to have enough new trees on their own and where planting may be necessary to restore forest cover. Foresters I work with on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest are using this tool to streamline our work. Unfortunately, deciding where to plant is just the beginning shortages of seedlings and labor mean that scaling up reforestation efforts may be slow. It can be especially difficult to convince qualified foresters to move to rural areas like Trinity County where the largest reforestation projects are needed. This is where programs like GrizzlyCorps come in: as a GrizzlyCorps member at the Trinity County Resource Conservation District, I’ve been able to provide assistance to the understaffed Forest Service office as a planting contract inspector.

Fortunately, with growing concern about wildfire and climate change, reforestation is finally getting the political energy it deserves. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November 2021, boosted Forest Service funding and included the REPLANT (Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees) Act. This act lifts the Forest Service’s $30 million annual reforestation spending cap, which was implemented in 1980 and is far from sufficient to cover today’s reforestation needs (estimated at a whopping $183 million per year). Funding is drawn from wood product tariffs. The act also authorized the Forest Service to plant a billion trees over the next decade. In a divided world, planting trees seems to be something we all can agree on: the REPLANT act had lead sponsors from both sides of the aisle.

Even as funding pours in, many conversations about planting leave out one of the most critical parts of the process: the workers that do the backbreaking work of putting seedlings in the ground. Forest Service planting is completed by contractor crews, primarily staffed with H-2B “guest workers” (the same seasonal immigrants that work in California’s agricultural fields. Like field labor jobs, planting work is considered undesirable by most American citizens and few domestic workers apply. Planting is plagued by the same justice concerns as farm work: while government contracts require fair labor practices, these often aren’t enforced and migrant workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation. While it should be a top priority, ensuring fair treatment of workers would further increase reforestation costs, something sure to be politically unpopular.

Still, this part of reforestation must be prioritized as the REPLANT act goes into effect: true climate resilience can’t be built on the back of human exploitation.

Working on reforestation, like working in the environmental field itself, has left me with a jumble of emotions. The challenges of funding, justice for workers, and adapting a massive and logistically complex operation to consider climate change sometimes feels insurmountable. Still, every seedling in the ground feels like the ultimate act of hope. One day, this burn scar will be a forest, teeming with wildlife, holding carbon in broad tree trunks, cooling the water, wildlife, and people that take shelter in its branches. In the face of so many paralyzing challenges and questions, it still feels incredibly worthwhile to be doing something.

A freshly planted Douglas-fir seedling and the view out over the August complex burn scar, with intermixed patches of low and high intensity fire.

(Pictured: Above) Several members of a planting crew work their way uphill amid burned snags.

(Pictured: Left)A freshly planted Douglas-fir seedling and the view out over the August complex burn scar, with intermixed patches of low and high intensity fire.

(Pictured: Bottom Right) A freshly planted Douglas-fir seedling, with charred trees and planters visible in the background

(Pictured: Top Right) Wildflowers thriving on the burn scar include Henderson’s shooting star (Primula herdersonii) and fawn lily (Erythronium spp.)

(Pictured: Bottom Left) Patches of fawn lilies (Erythronium spp.) blanketed the ground in one of our planting units on the August complex.

Works Cited

Becker, Rachel, and Julie Cart. “As UN Tackles Twin Climate Threats, California Struggles with Them, Too.” CalMatters, November 5, 2021, sec. Environment.

“Beneath the Pines: Stories of Migrant Tree Planters.” Accessed April 14, 2022.

Crampton, Liz. “A Casualty of Trump’s Immigration Policy: Millions of Trees.” Politico, July 12, 2020.

Daley, Jad. “Celebrating the Infrastructure Bill — A Win for America’s Forests.” American Forests (blog), November 5, 2021.

Klein, Jesse. “Reforestation Is Great! But We’re Running Out of Seeds.” Wired, April 6, 2021.

Perez-Watkins, Monica. “What the Passage of the 2021 Infrastructure Bill Means for Tree Planting on National Forests.” National Forest Foundation (blog). Accessed April 14, 2022.

U.S. Department of Labor. “Reforestation Worker Rights.” Accessed April 14, 2022.

Sánchez, José J., Raymundo Marcos-Martinez, Lorie Srivastava, and Natthanij Soonsawad. “Valuing the Impacts of Forest Disturbances on Ecosystem Services: An Examination of Recreation and Climate Regulation Services in U.S. National Forests.” Trees, Forests and People 5 (September 1, 2021): 100123.

Stevens-Rumann, Camille S., and Penelope Morgan. “Tree Regeneration Following Wildfires in the Western US: A Review.” Fire Ecology 15, no. 1 (May 20, 2019): 15.

Stewart, Joseph A. E., Phillip J. van Mantgem, Derek J. N. Young, Kristen L. Shive, Haiganoush K. Preisler, Adrian J. Das, Nathan L. Stephenson, et al. “Effects of Postfire Climate and Seed Availability on Postfire Conifer Regeneration.” Ecological Applications 31, no. 3 (2021): e02280.

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