From seed to sapling: Budding signs of growth appear at the Buffalo Mountain burn scar four years post wildfire

Members of the U.S. Forest Service led a field trip through the Buffalo Mountain burn scar on Thursday, Sept 2, 2022.
Luke Vidic/Summit Daily News

Four years after the Buffalo Mountain Fire torched 91 acres of forest above the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighborhoods in Silverthorne, the forest is showing health signs of rebirth thanks in part to replanting efforts by the U.S. Forest Service.

The fire was likely human caused and ignited June 12, 2018, moving down the hillside from a collection of fire rings towards millions-of-dollars worth of residential property. The fire was mostly contained by June 16, but it left behind a scorched field with blackened and branchless lodgepole spires.

Now, signs of life abound. A few spires remain, but most have toppled into jackstraw piles with new lodgepole saplings and aspen runners shooting through the cracks. The growth has been great in hand-planted areas where 5,400 seedlings were nested into the ground, White River National Forest reforestation coordinator Sarah Pearson said, but that hasn’t quite been the case in areas where regrowth is all natural.

Members of the U.S. Forest Service and Friends of the Dillon Ranger District walked folks through the healing scar Thursday.

“There’s way more into the whole process than anybody ever imagined,” Pearson said.

The process of replanting incorporated years of planning, securing contractors and coordinating with a seed bank in northern Nebraska.

A sapling pokes through the soil of the Buffalo Mountain burn scar on Thursday, Sept 2, 2022
Luke Vidic/Summit Daily News

Wilderness designations prevent foresters from replanting in a burn scar. The natural regrowth in those areas hasn’t been great, Pearson said. There’s been some growth, but not much.

Why is that the case? Pearson said the Forest Service isn’t yet certain. It’s possible the fire burned up too many seeds. It’s also possible bark beetles killed too many trees, resulting in degraded seeds.

Contractors could not plant in designated wilderness or too close to homes where fuel brakes were cut, hemming in human planting to just 14 acres. In those 14 acres, though, growth has been great, thanks in part to a rainy summer.

“I’ve actually been super happy. If we would’ve had a dry summer, we probably would’ve seen a few more dead trees” and significantly reduced growth, Pearson said.

The seedlings planted at Buffalo Mountain were lodgepole pine, and Engelmann spruce were collected from the White River National Forest but were sent to the Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery in Nebraska. There, the seeds were extracted from their cone, dewinged, tested for germination and put in frozen storage before returning home to Buffalo Mountain for planting, Pearson said.

The Bessey Nursery offers the Forest Service more than 20,000 square feet of greenhouses capable of producing millions seeds and seedlings annually. In some cases seeds can be stored for decades, but those seeds can develop mal-mutations hindering health and growth, Pearson said.

 “It was only a few years ago that they were actually growing seeds that have been collected in 1977,” Pearson said. “But you get genetic changes, and then suddenly (you) end up with albino trees.”

Replanting trees are chosen based on their “seed zones” in Colorado. A fitting seedling should match the burn scar’s environment and elevation. In addition, planters are limited by what selection the seed bank has ready and available. 

The Forest Service plays a bit of a “guessing game” when it comes to seed planning, Pearson said. The service creates a 10-year seed plan, auditing the seed types it has available for the seed bank and what types of seeds it may need in the future. Planting at Buffalo Mountain and recently at Peak 2 worked out well Pearson said because the Forest Service collected a bunch of suitable seeds a while ago, gathering seeds in buckets and burlap bags.

The Forest Service can, in some instances, encourage seed gathering by actually stressing trees. Natural cone and seed crops can occur on a “crazy cycle,” Pearson said, but the Forest Service can “actually stress the trees and cut roots and all kinds of stuff to stress the tree to make it produce cones.”

When the seedlings finally returned to the White River National Forest, they were put in the hands of contractors for planting. A group of 12 planters put 5,400 seedlings in the ground in about two to three hours at Buffalo Mountain, Pearson said.

“Each guy will plant like 800 to 1,000 seedlings … per day,” she said.

It’s for about that reason the Forest Service doesn’t rely on volunteers, Pearson said, despite being “half-staffed.”

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