Forest restoration is the key to a healthier planet.

By planting oak seedlings on the surrounding hillsides, this project helped to protect local streams and rivers from erosion, which was contaminating the local communities’ main source of drinking water.

American Forests works to rebuild forests. In some cases this means restoring a degraded forest to a healthy ecosystem, and in others it can mean rebuilding a destroyed ecosystem from scratch. One of our most challenging projects has been at Cuyamaca Rancho State Park near San Diego.

After a forest fire, many types of forests are usually able to regenerate naturally, thanks to seeds that are activated by the fire’s heat. This has been seen most famously in Yellowstone National Park, which decided to let natural reforestation run its course after the devastating fires of 1988. Trees and plants quickly sprang from the ashes, providing a living laboratory for forestry study.

That wasn’t going to happen at Cuyamaca. In 2003, the Cedar Fire burned 95 percent of the park’s 26,000 acres. Gone were trees, wildlife, habitat, watershed stability, and the natural recreational playground that the park had been. Unlike at Yellowstone, however, the fire burned so hot that it destroyed the pine and cedar cones that would have provided seeds to regenerate the forest. Working with Cal Fire, a state emergency response agency, and with California State Parks, American Forests is in the process of replanting 2,500 acres of the mixed conifer forest, including understory plants. The effort has shortened the ecosystem’s recovery by years, and the park is once again welcoming campers and other visitors.

Not all forests are lost en masse; some vanish tree by tree. In the 1600s, longleaf pine forests stretched from Virginia to east Texas, but over time they have all but disappeared due to logging, agriculture, and fire suppression (these trees depend on fire for growth and reproduction). Scientists have documented as many as 100 species of plants, including wildflowers and orchids, in a single square meter of a longleaf pine understory. Restoring this ecosystem through a variety of projects in many states provides habitat for several endangered animals, such as the red-cockaded woodpecker.