Sugar Pine Foundation spends nearly 20 years restoring Tahoe forests

Tressa Gibbard / Sugar Pine Foundation
A beautiful sugar pine on Tahoe’s East Shore.
Provided / Milena Regos

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The Sugar Pine Foundation is a small South Lake Tahoe-based nonprofit that has been dedicated to saving the sugar pines of the region by planting thousands of seedlings in burns scars, eroded slopes, in thinning projects and on other lands in need of restoration for nearly 20 years.

Why do Tahoe’s sugar pines and forests need to be restored?

The answer revolves around historical logging, decades of fire suppression and the threat of a little-known but incredibly deadly disease called white pine blister rust.

John Pickett climbing a tall sugar pine to harvest cones.

In the early 1800s, about 20% of the mixed conifer forest at lake level was sugar pines. After the Tahoe Basin was clear cut in the Comstock Era, sugar pines did not come back in their previous numbers and fire suppression allowed less fire resistant species like white fir and Jeffrey pine to dominate and crowd out shade intolerant sugar pines. With the proper space and light needed to grow, sugar pine reach heights of over 200 feet. In fact, they are the tallest pine species and they feature the longest pine cones in the world. The cones are often over a foot long and chock full of nutritious seeds that feed bears, squirrels and birds. Eagles like to build their nests in the tops of the tallest mature sugar pine trees.

Today, sugar pines comprise only 5% of the trees in Tahoe’s forests and they are being decimated by the non-native, invasive, incurable white pine blister rust fungus. Blister rust kills over 95% of trees that it infects. Tahoe’s sugar pines, western white pines and whitebark pines have been dying from the fungus at an alarming rate, which has cascading deleterious effects on the ecosystem and the local economy. Trees help stabilize soil and the winter snowpack, which helps reduce sedimentation into lakes and streams. White pines are an important source of food and habitat for native wildlife. Mature old sugar pines even feature thick, fire resistant bark which can often survive a fire and therefore offer fire protection. Sugar pines are also beloved by nature enthusiasts, recreationalists, visitors and locals alike for their aesthetic beauty and enormous cones. For these and other reasons, keeping sugar pines and other white pines on the landscape is incredibly beneficial.

Happy watering crew in the Emerald Fire burn scar outside of South Lake Tahoe.

Thankfully, about 5% of sugar pine and western white pines are genetically resistant to the blister rust fungus. The SPF was founded to counteract the threat of this deadly pathogen to Tahoe’s sugar pines and other white pines by capitalizing on this diversity of nature to restore these trees and the overall vigor of Tahoe’s forest ecosystem. The SPF’s restoration strategy is relatively simple – find trees that are resistant to the blister rust fungus, collect their cones and plant their progeny – yet all of these steps are time consuming and labor-intensive to carry out.  Because the SPF is a tiny organization – it has never had a staff of more than three people! – it has relied on community involvement to accomplish their mission. The SPF’s holistic, community-based approach has always centered around environmental education and engaging community members of all ages in every stage of their stewardship work and has proven very successful. 

In the early years of the organization, from 2005 to 2008, the SPF focused entirely on identifying blister rust resistant trees.  The 5% of sugar pines and western white pines that are immune to blister rust remain perfectly healthy even in heavily infected areas.  The SPF sought out these potential “seed trees,” harvested a few cones from each, and sent them to the US Forest Service Placerville Nursery for resistance testing. Out of more than 500 candidate trees that were tested, 66 sugar pines and 4 western white pines were confirmed resistant.

Sugar Pine Foundation founder John Pickett and Executive Director Maria Mircheva using a giant slingshot to harvest cones.

The SPF harvests the cones from these resistant trees every September when the seed is ripe but the cones have not yet “flared” and dropped their precious seed. The harvesting process involves climbing some of Tahoe’s tallest, healthiest and most majestic sugar pines. The trees are usually over 100 feet tall and require ropes and ascenders to scale. The climber brings a long pruner to clip off all of the cones – and sometimes they jump up and down to shake the cones off! A ground crew collects the fallen cones wherever they have bounced to and landed on the forest floor.

The SPF shares half of its collected cones with the USFS and sends most of the rest of the seed to the CalForest Nursery in Etna, CA to be germinated and grown into one-year-old seedlings for restoration plantings.

Since 2008, the SPF has led planting events in burn scars, in thinning projects and on lands in need of restoration throughout the Tahoe Basin and beyond. Over 11,000 community volunteers of all ages have planted over 170,000 trees on over 2,800 acres.

Last summer, the SPF started a new Watering and Monitoring program aimed at boosting seedling survival through the long, hot, dry summer months. Whereas long term survival has hovered around 20% on most planting site over the years, reducing seedling mortality during the first summer should improve this statistic. Over the past two summers, freshly planted sites that are watered once or twice a month show up to 50% improved survival. Volunteers have fallen in love with the new program too, because watering thirsty baby seedlings and seeing them thrive is incredibly rewarding. As Maria Mircheva, the Executive Director of the SPF says, “Watering seedlings now can create the forests of the future.”

Planting in the Caldor Fire burn scar.

Of course, the other main initiative for the SPF in the coming years is planting in the Caldor Fire burn scar. In the past, the SPF has planted about 10,000 trees per year on average, but the org is poised and ready to plant 15,000-20,000 seedlings per year as long as they can obtain permission from the USFS and other landowners to replant the Caldor. They are waiting for approval from most USFS partners at this time.

Since 2020, the SPF has been successfully “crowd-sourcing” seed collection by asking community volunteers to collect and send in Jeffrey pine and incense cedar seed to be used for fire restoration, where a mix of native conifers often need to be planted to re-establish the forest. In this way, the SPF has effortlessly collected over 100,000 seeds for future plantings and crowd-sourcing seed collection has become an ongoing initiative.

Sofia Hannemann watering the Caldor Fire bulldozer line. Watering keeps seedlings alive.

Last year’s Caldor Fire also boosted public interest in SPF’s mission and programs. The SPF wants to capitalize on this enthusiasm and support to replant the Caldor because, as Mircheva says, “It is the right thing to do right now.”

Under the guise of saving the sugar pines, educating and involving their community and harnessing peoples’ passion for forest stewardship has always been the SPF’s specialty. Planting trees is an act of hope and faith that the future can be as good or better than the present; that future generations will enjoy green forests, pure air, clean water and stately sugar pines and their giant cones just as much as we all do now. Thanks to the SPF and their many volunteers over the years, the prospect of just such a future gains a foothold with every tree planted.

Planting in the Emerald Fire burn scar.

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