Plant Trees, Not Too Many, Mostly Oaks: the Butte County RCD Reforests After the Camp Fire

Volunteers standing in a half circle around RCD staff person

In the aftermath of the Camp Fire, the Butte County Resource Conservation District (RCD) has been collaborating with partners and the Paradise community to reforest the landscape. In spring alone, the RCD helped plant 137,000 trees on private lands. Their mission is to regenerate a forest that is resilient to both wildfire and a changing climate.

After the Camp Fire, the Butte County RCD co-hosted public meetings to help community members better understand how climate change will affect trees. At the same time, they started enrolling landowners in emergency reforestation programs and working with partners like the American Forest Foundation to get trees in the ground.

If they are successful, the new forest will look different from the one before the fire. Previously, the forest was too dense and had a conifer-heavy species mix (archaeological and anecdotal data suggest the area had many more oaks before the 20th century). Wolfy Rougle, the RCD’s forest health watershed coordinator, says that 20th century conditions were the result of long-term fire suppression, which caused the forest to be more vulnerable when fire did ultimately spread. This time around, the RCD is promoting oak trees and other hardwoods planted at a lower density, captured in the new motto— “Plant Trees. Not Too Many. Mostly Oaks.”

They are putting this motto into action with a number of tree planting projects. They are partnering with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to offer free, comprehensive Forest Management Plans to dozens of private landowners. In the Concow Basin, they are partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to reforest public lands that otherwise wouldn’t get restored. The Concow Resilience Project has been collaboratively developed with researchers at UC Davis, the Pacific Southwest Research Station, the U.S. Forest Service, and many others.

volunteers digging holes and planting trees

Volunteers plant blue oak seedlings. Photo courtesy of Butte County RCD.

Community members have been actively participating in the reforestation effort, which has been funded by the American Forest Foundation, One Tree Planted, American Forests, and the California Native Plant Society. For example, over 60 volunteers turned out on a blustery Super Bowl Sunday to help plant oak trees in Concow.

Wolfy commented, “Oaks are special because they often resprout after fire, so they don’t always need to be replanted. But they do still benefit from tending to help them outcompete brush. Giving oaks the care they need to thrive is an important part of fire recovery we think will become increasingly common.”

Pine trees, she says, are still important. To make informed decisions about tree species, the Butte RCD collected input from local foresters, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the Fire Safe Councils, the Town of Paradise, and UC Davis to create the Climate Zones Replanting Map for Paradise Ridge. The map shows which trees are most appropriate for each climate zone, using UC Davis research to model how the climate might be different decades from now.

Volunteers in parking lot standing next to pile of tree protectors

Volunteers fold 200 blue tree protectors in a record ten minutes at a planting event hosted by the Butte County RCD. Photo courtesy of Butte County RCD.

Some challenges remain. Some small landowners who have lost all their trees don’t qualify for the funding sources the RCD has found so far. Oaks are more expensive to plant than conifers. Another challenge is the presence of burned, dead trees which are still standing on private lands. Tree removal is expensive, and reforestation is not possible while these trees are present, not in small part due to the danger of falling they pose to people and structures. The Butte County Fire Safe Council has been working hard to help landowners remove trees, but more funding is needed.

Forestry and fire prevention work like Butte RCD’s has been deemed an “essential service” by the State of California during the COVID-19 health crisis, so the RCD continues to help their community be fire resilient by providing trees and technical assistance. They are gearing up for an even larger planting for 2021. You can stay up to date with the latest news from the Butte County RCD on their Facebook page, or check out their website for even more resources.