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The Concow Resilience Project

Butte County Resource Conservation District

Climate-resilient reforestation is going to look different in every part of the United States. But it will be — and already is — important everywhere. The Concow Resilience Project highlights how forest restoration can make our forests both more resilient and more effective at storing carbon. 

American Forests

Since 2015, wildfires have ravaged more than 6.5 million acres in California. But this summer seemed to foreshadow a scale far worse. In one week alone, lightning strikes sparked hundreds of wildfires that devastated 1 million acres and killed countless trees. The state’s megafires are visual, visceral examples of climate- driven disasters.

The 2018 Camp Fire in California burned almost 240 square miles — an area the size of Chicago — and killed 85 people. It destroyed nearly 19,000 homes and businesses in Butte County, Calif., and leveled the towns of Paradise and Concow.

“The gift that the Camp Fire gave us is that it helped us to see what isn’t working. People became permeable to new ideas,” says Wolfy Rougle, the forest health watershed coordinator with the Butte County Resource Conservation District.  In 2019, Rougle assembled local land managers, climate scientists and nonprofit leaders, including Brittany Dyer, American Forests’ California state director. In a series of walks across the charred landscape, they began to envision what a more climate-resilient forest might look like and how to get there.

They chose to focus on Concow, in part because of its unique history of burning in large wildfires, including the Camp Fire. What they learn may guide forest adaptation across California’s low-elevation foothills — millions of acres in total — that are warming up and drying out faster than almost anywhere in the state, outside of the Mojave Desert.

Early on, the group outlined their vision for the restored landscape. They seek to sustain the region’s forests which, with fires and sustained drought, are gradually being replaced by highly flammable shrub fields. The forests they’re imagining will have fewer trees, and the trees will be larger and more widely spaced than those in today’s forests. A less dense forest will be able to weather fires, beetle outbreaks and droughts, and allow trees to accumulate carbon in their roots and trunks, and in the soil beneath them.

Healthy forests function as a carbon sink — helping to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, rather than releasing it back to the skies every time a disturbance strikes. A restored watershed would also provide clean and abundant water supply for those living downstream. And Concow residents, many of whom chose to live in the region for its forests, would enjoy safer economic and recreation opportunities.

“We have a moral obligation to replant the Concow region through a climate-smart lens,” Dyer says. “It would be nice if there was a silver- bullet-like solution — but there isn’t. Conditions are changing under our feet (literally), but by finding climate-smart solutions, we can redefine what it means to live in Paradise for years to come.”

The group is bringing its vision to life by testing three different reforestation approaches in the hardest-hit parts of the region. Their motto is short and sweet: “Plant trees. Not too many. Mostly oaks.” They aim to learn as much as possible and to do so as fast as possible.

“We need to try a lot of different things,” Rougle says. “A lot of it might not work, but a lot of conventional reforestation doesn’t work — so why keep doing only that?”

Some of the climate-smart reforestation techniques that Concow Resilience Project is studying include:

  • Bringing back the oaks: Encouraging the growth of oak savannahs are resilient to fire and well adapted to the hotter, drier ecosystems we can expect in coming decades.  Oak trees can re-sprout from their existing root system.
  • Smart use of prescribed fire: A regime of planned, prescribed burns in reforested areas – managed by local forest tenders – coupled with innovative reforestation techniques like cluster planting, may help prevent the kind of catastrophic fires that have ravaged the west in recent years.
  • Assisted Migration: To help ensure that the right trees are growing in the right place, the group is exploring whether planting ponderosa pine seeds from warmer and dryer climates are better adapted to emerging climate conditions. Collecting seeds from trees that have survived tree-killing events can also help increase forest resiliency.
  • Targeted Plantings: Identifying specific spots, or “refugia” in burned areas that help shield trees from the effects of climate change – such as near streams and around lakes, can help create lifeboats for trees when surrounding landscapes face forest-killing events.

Special thanks to American Forests Senior Manager of Forest Restoration Austin Rempel for sharing this story.

Read the full story about the Concow Resilience Project in American Forests’ magazine.