The Challenge

Fire-damaged area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in August 2012.

Fire-damaged area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in August 2012. Credit: American Forests

  • Cuyamaca Rancho State Park has been host to the same devastating combination of problems that many western forests are experiencing: drought, buildup of fuels, and a bark beetle infestation.
  • A wildfire burned the state park at such high intensity that very little natural regeneration has been able to take place.
  • Since native flora has been unable to re-establish inside the burn site, invasive species are beginning to take their place, creating a new type of ecosystem, and driving out the remaining native species.
  • Reforestation combats climate change by providing more carbon storage, but many tree planting projects still do not recognize or take full advantage of this benefit.

Why We Care

Fire-damaged area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in August 2012.

Fire-damaged area of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in August 2012. Credit: American Forests

In 2003, the Cedar Fire burned more than 280,000 acres of San Diego County, California. The largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history, it charred 95 percent of the 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Though California forests are no strangers to wildfire, this particular fire was too intense for the forest to withstand, and very little natural regeneration has taken place since. The damage has had a drastic effect on the local ecosystem, wiping out wildlife habitat, causing increased erosion and decreased water quality, and putting massive amounts of stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

The story at Cuyamaca is all too familiar. Many forests, across the west especially, are falling victim to a vicious cycle of damage fed by climate change and human mismanagement. Warmer, drier temperatures cause droughts, and enable hungry bark beetles to take up residence in the forests. These factors alone kill off millions of trees each year, leading to a buildup of dead trees that make easy kindling for a wildfire. Then when the fire burns through the forest, all the carbon storage that the living trees provide is lost, and the carbon goes back into the atmosphere, further contributing to the same climate change patterns that put it at risk in the first place.

Our Strategy

In 2008, American Forests — with partners California State Parks, CAL Fire and Conoco-Phillips — stepped in to break the cycle. As the first step, we planted 9,000 pine seedlings across 25 acres of the park and monitored their progress. The next year, we expanded the planting site to include 256 acres, then 331. Since 2008, 386,500 trees have been planted across 1,535 acres, and the plan is to expand the planting site to 2,500 acres by 2018. Working with our partners, the project has been designed to maximize the new forest’s carbon storage capability, by planting appropriate numbers of trees of a variety of native species, and continuing to monitor and maintain the growing forest.

American Forests board and staff members

American Forests board and staff members and other project partners in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park in August 2012. Credit: American Forests

In addition to tree planting, we also wanted to address the causes of this wildfire, and so many others that burn through forests each year. This means getting the project recognition for what it is accomplishing – not just planting trees, but also increasing carbon storage to combat climate change. We want to encourage more people, agencies, and organizations to see the role that forests play in storing carbon and mitigating the threat of climate change.

In the spring of 2010, the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Reforestation Project became the first project on public lands to be listed in the Climate Action Reserve, seeking certification under California Air Resources Board’s practices for offsetting carbon. Also in 2010, the project received the CAL Fire Director’s Award for Partnership, and the Bright Ideas Award from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Our partners at the planting site continue to research and report back about the carbon sequestration and storage abilities the forest performs, providing vital information that can help us better understand the connections between forests, carbon, and climate change.