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Drones to the rescue: Sugar Pine Foundation plants trees from sky

The drones can drop 75,000 seed balls over 25 acres. (Provided)

Drones have been used for filming, recording sports activities, exploring, even package delivery and now they are going to be used for forest restoration.

The Sugar Pine Foundation is pioneering drone planting to restore a 25-acre parcel in the Loyalton Fire burn scar northwest of Reno. To do so, they have partnered with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Flying Forests.

The Sugar Pine Foundation is a local nonprofit which aims to restore the local sugar pine population by cultivating and planting blister rust resistant trees. They do this by identifying rust resistant trees, harvesting their cones, partnering with the Forest Service to grow seedlings from those cones and planting those seedlings with the help of volunteers.

While that strategy has been incredibly successful, with thousands of seedlings being planted over the years, it can be limited with its time consumption and how far volunteers can get out into the forests on foot.

Then, after the Loyalton Fire burned 47,029 acres on the HTNF and Tahoe National Forests in September 2020, SPF Executive Director Maria Mircheva and HTNF Forester Annabelle Monti both started to think about how drones could help regrow the forest.

“All of a sudden, everyone was talking about drones, so I started asking land managers if they were interested in doing drone planting together,” Mircheva said in a press release.

Mircheva said concerned citizens and community members had sent them 30 pounds of Jeffrey pine seed – enough to plant about 90,000 trees. They also received several grants to help with the restoration.

“One of the things we’re always thinking about is how we can be more efficient and cost effective, especially when we’re talking about reforestation after a wildfire. This new technology could bring a whole new way to get trees back on a landscape, and we’re anxious to try it out and see how it works in our area,” Monti said in the press release.

They found local drones to help with the mission.

Flying Forests was created by Dr. Lauren Fletcher – a Stanford and Oxford-educated engineer and entrepreneur who is the inventor of tree-planting drones – in collaboration with the Swiss NGO, WeRobotics.

The objective of Flying Forests is to help landholders and communities around the world better access and utilize drone technology for local environmental stewardship initiatives. The Desert Research Institute, another Reno institution, also provides technical support to Flying Forests.

While Fletcher has years of experience with drone planting in the UK, he needed a U.S. pilot project to help launch the initiative in the states.

“I was really happy that Sugar Pine Foundation was interested in supporting this local US pilot project,” Fletcher said in the press release. “As a 5th generation Nevadan, I’ve always wanted to bring my vision and technology back to the mountains and places that I love so much.”

The drones will drop seed balls over the designated areas. In an interview with Tahoe Magazine, Mircheva said the seed balls are made of several ingredients including nutrients and seeds, of course to help the seed balls to stick together and be able to grow. But they also include ingredients like cayenne pepper and rotten eggs that act as animal deterrents for critters that might be interested in a seed ball snack.

To start, they will be dropping 75,000 seed balls but not all of them are expected to grow into trees.

“We have 25 acres, and it’s 1000 seeds per acre, and we’re hoping that 150 or 200 would sprout, and from that, probably still there’s gonna be mortality,” Mircheva said. “But we’re hoping for about 50 trees per acre.”

In theory, those 50 trees per acre should be enough to have forest again in addition to some natural regeneration that’s likely to happen.

Mircheva said they are focusing on the north facing slopes where the forests are more likely to grow. Some slopes were likely not forests, even before the fire, they were brush areas.

“Probably more are not going to be forests now with climate change and the ways things are going there’s going to be less forests in those dry areas like the Eastern Sierra and Carson Range,” Mircheva said.

Now is the most important time to start reforestation efforts.

“You want to get in there as soon as possible because things start naturally growing, like bushes and grasses,” Mircheva said “And so if you want to grow a forest and trees, you need to plan as soon as possible after a fire, because all the other plants are competition for the trees.”

However, Mircheva is hopeful the drone technology will advance enough to allow the drones to spot bare areas where seeds are more likely to survive.

The drones will fly about 20 to 50 feet above the ground. Mircheva said for the most part, birds and animals have left the area because of the fire but for the ones that are still there, this will only cause a minor disturbance.

They are dropping seeds for somewhere between five and eight hours, that’s compared to the more 300 hours it would take to plant by hand.

However, Mircheva did say if they were planting by hand, they would be planting seedlings, which have a higher survival rate than seed balls.

SPF will be returning to the areas annually to look at the progress of the seedlings. However, with variability in weather, Mircheva said they won’t have a clear picture until they use this method several times during different times of the year.

“This project is really cutting-edge and really exciting. We are ecstatic to be working with such great partners and to be at the forefront of using drone technology to aid forest restoration in the Sierra,” said Mircheva in the press release.

Editor’s note: this story appears in the 2021 summer edition of Tahoe Magazine.

Using drones can save hundreds of staff hours and plantings are most effective shortly after the fire has happened. (Provided)