Save the sugar pines: Reviving Tahoe’s struggling forests is a group effort
In 1859, a deposit of silver was discovered in a peak of the Virginia Range, the first major silver discovery in the United States, kicking off a silver rush that brought thousands of prospectors to the area. Mining camps began cropping up, leading to buzzing commercial centers like Virginia City and Gold Hil. Named after the miner who made the discovery, the Comstock Lode created fortunes and shaped the communities in Northern Nevada. But, as one Virginia City journalist correctly concluded in the 1890s, “The Comstock Lode was the tomb of the forests of Tahoe.”
Mature sugar, jeffrey and yellow pine trees were clear cut from the Tahoe Basin — the standard logging practice at the time — to sustain mining and development in the region, which only became more economically important as the Civil War erupted. Nevada’s silver was crucial in funding the Union army. From 1859 to 1900, hundreds of thousands of trees were felled and floated across the lake to mills in Glenbrook and Incline Village. The milled wood was transported by train and trams, then floated down water flumes to the railroad yards in Carson City.
All that remained in the striped basin was the biggest fir trees, which became the seed source for the forest’s regrowth. The fir seedlings outcompeted the few remaining pines that dropped cones, creating an unhealthy forest with numerous issues. The fir-heavy forest was more susceptible to dry spells without enough drought-tolerant pine trees. Additionally, the trees were too dense for the land to support, and they were all roughly the same age, meaning their life cycles would come to an end at nearly the same time.
Compounded by human-led fire suppression quelling the natural cycle of wildfires, the overgrown forests became more susceptible to disease, pests and, ultimately, mortality.
LESS IS MORE
For decades, the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) and its partners have been working to restore the basin’s forests to a healthy balance.
“We’ve been focused on forest thinning and fuels reduction for the purpose of restoring the forest to a more resilient — what would be considered more normal — condition,” explains Rita Mustatia, a silviculturist at LTBMU. “So less trees per acre and more of the trees that would be growing there like the jeffrey pine and sugar pine — more typical to what would have been happening prior to the Comstock logging.”
This can be done with machinery in certain areas, but in many locations, it requires boots on the ground, trimming ladder fuels — lower branches that could carry the fire into the tree and destroy it — and cutting down trees that are too close together and competing for limited nutrients. The wood is cut and put into large piles to cure for a couple of years before it’s burned under supervision. Forest thinning and prescribed burns have been underway in the Tahoe Basin for nearly three decades and are credited in slowing the spread of wildfires in treated areas.
But another important aspect of improving the health of Tahoe’s forests is bringing back its biodiversity. And the poster child for that effort has been the towering sugar pine.
Sugar pines once constituted roughly 25% of Tahoe’s forest, according to logging receipts from the 1800s. Today, the world’s tallest pine makes up less than 5% of the trees.
In 2004, John Pickett was working as a technician for the U.S. Forest Service in the Tahoe Basin when he noticed that most of the white pines, including the sugar pine, were dying at an alarming rate from an invasive fungus called blister rust. Understanding the importance of the sugar pine to the overall ecosystem, Pickett formed the Sugar Pine Foundation the next year with the goal of identifying rust-resistant trees, collecting their seeds and planting the next generation of resilient sugar pines.
Eighteen years later, the Sugar Pine Foundation has planted 183,213 trees (with many more yet to be tallied from this spring and fall planting sprees) and restored 3,082 acres. The small-but-mighty organization has just three employees but the help of more than 1,000 volunteers who pitch in annually to replant in burn scars or other impacted landscapes.
“Biodiversity is important because having different types of trees in the forest makes the forest as a whole more resilient to stressors since different types of trees have different adaptations,” explains Maria Mircheva, executive director of the Sugar Pine Foundation. “For example, sugar pine and jeffrey pine have fire-resistant bark, so they are more likely to survive in wildfires. Jeffrey pines are more resistant to drought than sugar pines or white firs. There’s also pests, like the jeffrey pine beetle, which will kill only jeffrey pines but not sugar pines, white fir or cedars. Pathogens are species specific, so it’s important to have a variety of species so when a pathogen comes through the forest, it doesn’t kill the whole forest.”
Blister rust kills around 95% of the trees that it infects, including western white pines and whitebark pines. The trickle-down effect on the ecosystem can be devastating. The trees stabilize soil and the snowpack, reducing sediment runoff into Tahoe and its tributaries. They provide a habitat for birds, squirrels and other small mammals. Stellar jays and yellow-pine chipmunks feed on their large, nutritious seeds.
Since its inception, the Sugar Pine Foundation has tested more than 500 sugar pine trees to see if they are resistant to blister rust. They do this by collecting green pine cones from the top of the trees, which are usually 130-200 feet tall, with some even growing to 250 feet. Sometimes large sling shots are used to knock cones down, or a forester uses a system of ropes to pull themself high into the tree to collect the cones. The massive cones can measure anywhere from 12-20 inches long and weigh several pounds when laden with plump seeds. At the U.S. Forest Service nursery in Placerville, the seeds are planted, and the resulting seedlings are inoculated with blister rust.
“If 50% or more from a certain tree survive, then the parent tree is resistant,” notes Mircheva. So far, 66 trees have been tagged as seed sources.
Every September, the Sugar Pine Foundation and its volunteers collect cones from these trees to keep up their supply of rust-resistant seedlings. In May, the organization plants seedlings — this year, in the burn scars of the Tamarack and Caldor fires — and again in October.
Typically, the Sugar Pine Foundation plants around 10,000 trees per year, but in the wake of the Caldor Fire, which torched 221,835 acres in 2021, the nonprofit plans to put in 15,000-20,000 seedlings in the scar. This includes other varieties of native conifers, like the western white pines, which the foundation has also started testing for rust resistance and cultivating. Since 2020, the Sugar Pine Foundation has asked its network of volunteers to collect and send in jeffrey pine and incense cedar seeds that are needed for planting a mix of trees in burn zones.
“Since we already know how to collect seeds and grow them at a nursery, we branched out to collect from pretty much all native conifers so that when we do plantings in fire scars, it would be a balanced mixture of species,” notes Mircheva.
On planting days, you’ll find volunteers of all ages planting 3-inch seedlings in the ground that could one day grow to nearly 200 feet. In the summer months, more volunteers return to water them. It’s an investment in the future of Tahoe — and a gift to the next generation.
To find out more about volunteering, adopt a tree or sponsor the reforestation of an acre, visit http://www.sugarpinefoundation.org.
Editor’s note: This story appears in the 2023 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.
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