Sugar Pine Foundation works with youth to restore iconic conifer
In an area of Washoe Meadows dotted with burn-scarred Jeffrey Pines and dozens of stumps, Sage Westcott and Yari Torres, both sophomores at South Tahoe High School, planted their first tree. Over two days, Torres and Westcott, along with the rest of Carla Zezula’s biology class, learned about the Sugar Pine Foundation’s mission to restore the sugar pine population in Tahoe’s forests.
“They live here,” said foundation executive director Maria Pickett. “They’ve got to know about their forests.”
The foundation kicked off the Spring season with a pair community-involved plantings. On Saturday, around 1,000 seedlings were set into the still-moist soil in the Angora Fire area by the Rotary Club of South Lake Tahoe and neighborhood members. Tuesday, the biology students helped put more than 200 of the tiny trees into the burned spot near Sawmill Pond.
“Overall the idea is to get the forest composition and the sugar pines back to the natural state,” said Sugar Pine Foundation worker Tressa Gibbard.
The sugar pines, blighted by white pine blister rust, used to make up around 25 percent of the forest, but now only comprise 5 percent of trees in the region, Gibbard said. Having the students involved, is great for two reasons, she said. One, hopefully, they’ll become the future stewards of the forest. And two, they’re “planting machines.”
“You give them tools and seedlings, and they’re so excited to do the plantings,” she said. “We’ve got to hold them back, like, ‘Save some seedlings for the next crew.'”
The students wandered the area, looking for spots with good sun, wet dirt and not too much mulch. They used spades to dig holes deep enough to bury the roots, placed the seedlings and recovered the hole.
“It’s really important for the ecosystem,” 15-year-old Westcott said. “This is all burnt and we need to re-grow.”
The seedlings are sprouted from seeds from the cones of sugar pines that are resistant to white pine blister rust. They are grown for a year until they’re about one foot tall in Etna, Calif. and then transported to Tahoe for planting.
“We want to get the gene out there, so it will cross-pollinate with existing trees and increase survival,” Pickett said.
The Sugar Pine Foundation hopes to plant more than 10,000 seedlings this year, Pickett said. They will be planting near Truckee and in the Gondola Fire area near Heavenly in the spring and the fall. Those seasons are best because the seedlings need water, Gibbard said.
The other half of the students lesson on the sugar pines was monitoring seedlings that were planted around the high school last year. Pickett led the group up a muddy slope near the football field, pointing out the different types of pines and how to identify them.
When asked why she believes it’s important for the students to learn about the sugar pines, she answered simply.
“They are the future.”