Parts of fire-ravaged Angeles National Forest to be restored

National Forest Foundation press conference in the Angeles National Forest, April 15, 2011
National Forest Foundation press conference in the Angeles National Forest, April 15, 2011
Shirley Jahad/KPCC

Nearly two years after an arsonist ignited what became the largest fire in Los Angeles County history, officials are launching an effort to restore tens of thousands of acres in some of the most severely charred areas of the mountainous Angeles National Forest.

The National Forest Foundation, government leaders, conservation groups and corporate sponsors are expected to announce a five-year effort Friday to plant 3 million trees on 10,000 acres and to restore the habitat on another 40,000 acres in the Big Tujunga Canyon watershed.

The 2009 Station Fire scorched about 161,000 acres, destroyed 89 homes and left two firefighters dead. An estimated 14,000 acres were burned to deforested conditions, and it is this area that is being targeted for tree planting

Workers have been collecting seeds from other parts of the forest in elevations that correspond to the destroyed areas. The seeds have been sent to a nursery which has been growing the saplings that will be replanted in the forest. Officials hope to plant a variety of fir and pine trees on an estimated 4,200 acres this year.

Marty Dumpis, deputy forest supervisor of Angeles National Forest, said without the move, invasive plants would crowd out all the native plants in some parts of the forest. And while the restoration will undeniably help restore areas where traces of burned trees and charred debris are still visible, Dumpis admitted it may never be what it was.

"We realize we're never going to be able to 100 percent mimic what used to be out there 200 or 300 years ago," he said.

Critics, however, say officials could make sure they only plant the types of trees that belong in the burned zone but instead have plans to also plant Coulter pines, which may not be indigenous and could alter the ecosystem balance.

"What I've been told is that they're planting Coulter pines in areas that used to have big cone Douglas fir and they're doing it because that's what they have available," said Jon Keeley, research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey Western Ecological Research Center. "They have a lot of them, they're cheap and they grow fast."

In this case it's of particular concern, said Keeley, because the big cone Douglas fir is not found everywhere and has lost a lot of its former range.

"It's a tree of particular concern," he said. "What they're doing is contrary to good ecosystem management in my mind."

Angeles National Forest sprawls over 650,000 acres in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles. The Station Fire, named for a ranger station near the ignition point, was set on Aug. 26, 2009, and spread through the rugged range, threatening suburbs on the foothills below.

It was not fully contained until the following Oct. 16. Subsequent rainstorms unleashed debris flows from denuded slopes that damaged or destroyed some foothill homes, while forcing repeated evacuations.

© 2011 The Associated Press.