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Trees planted in Angeles forest after Station fire not taking hold

April 9, 2012 | 10:06 am

Scorched trees
A year ago,  U.S. Forest Service crews planted nearly a million pine and fir trees in the San Gabriel Mountains 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.

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.

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.

The goal now is to plant enough seedlings so that five years from now, 900,000 trees will be growing on 4,400 acres.

The 2009 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.

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-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Surrounded by scorched trees, Steve Bear, resource officer for the U.S. Forest Service's Los Angeles River Ranger District, surveys where Ponderosa pine seedlings were planted at Barley Flats in the Angeles National Forest. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times.

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