Tree specialists continue work to restore ponderosa pine on North Kaibab

FREDONIA – Employees on the North Kaibab Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest have once again partnered with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to plant seedlings in the Warm Fire 2017 planting project at East Lake.

This year’s Warm Fire planting project was completed in the spring with the help of a $54,000 grant from the NFF and the combined efforts of both the USDA Forest Service and Oregon-based contractor GE Forestry. Together, this on-the-ground effort yielded a total of 76,000 ponderosa pine seedlings planted in the 350-acre East Lake project area. It also increased the overall grand total for the Warm Fire reforestation to more than 1.8 million trees planted and certified across 6,100 acres of this multi-phased reforestation effort since planting efforts began in 2008.

This year’s planting project was led by North Kaibab Ranger District Assistant Silviculturist Joseph Varnado and District Silviculturist Garry Domis. This is the sixth such project in the Warm Fire area. All six projects were made possible through more than $440,000 in grants provided to the Kaibab National Forest from the National Forest Foundation, American Forest Foundation, Salt River Project Trees for Change program, and the National Bank of Arizona’s Sustainable Initiatives program.

“The key here is survival. We are planting tomorrow’s future forest,” said Varnado. “So when we’re out here, we are looking for the best possible sites to plant. Sites with the best moisture, with the best shade, and the best protection from the elements so we can enhance the survivability of our investment and protect our future forest.”

An important component crucial to that survivability began in 2009 when cones for the reforestation effort were collected from the North Kaibab and shipped to Lucky Peak Nursery near Boise, Idaho. Seeds are extracted and stored in the forest’s seed bank until needed for a planting project.

By planting seeds harvested from cones collected on the North Kaibab and stored at the nursery, foresters are able to “ensure proper provenance for planting,” said Domis, by planting native trees back into an area when the need arises. “In the forestry world we refer to this collection, storage and planting of seedlings in an area in which they originated as the conservation of genetics,” said North Kaibab District Ranger Randall Walker. “The long-term benefits help ensure provenance and avoid contamination of the genetic pool specific to a particular geographic location and elevational band. This multi-phased conservation effort is important to helping the area recover because it results in the best phenotypic characteristics that stand the best chance of survival.”

According to Walker, some preferred phenotypic traits may include trees with dark-colored green crowns which indicates the best chance to synthesize nutrients; trees with straight form which indicates the best chance to capture sunlight; trees with branch angles that can best adapt to snow loads at a higher elevation versus a lower elevation; or trees without forks, as forked trees are more susceptible to damage by winds at higher elevations.

Regardless of location or vegetation type, foresters can theoretically collect any type of native seed and send to the nursery for storage and future planting projects. Ordering a particular species is as simple as submitting a “sow and grow” request to the nursery.

For this year’s planting project, Domis submitted a request to Lucky Peak Nursery in November 2015. The seeds were then withdrawn from the forest’s seed bank and then sown and grown on site, a process that takes approximately 12 months before the seedlings are ready for selection and shipment to the forest.