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Fire site being reclaimed, a seedling at a time

May 11, 2012 The Associated Press

PAHASKA (AP) -- At dawn, with the shadows long across Gunbarrel Creek, a crew of Oregon men scattered across the mountain slope to begin planting seedlings.

Four years after the Gunbarrel fire burned 67,000 acres across the Shoshone National Forest east of Yellowstone National Park, foresters are looking to give Mother Nature a hand, planting 120,000 Douglas fir seedlings throughout burned regions of the forest.

The Gunbarrel Creek drainage was first on the list, and Shoshone forester Amy Haas spent one morning last week looking for signs of natural regeneration.

Her inspection revealed a disappointing count: three tiny trees had managed to sprout on their own.

"The fire started one drainage over and it was so hot that we barely see any natural regeneration in here," Haas said. "Once this grass starts getting established like it is, then it's even harder for a seedling to get started."

Without assistance, Haas said, it could take 50 to 100 years for this arid region of the Shoshone to rejuvenate naturally. The south-facing drainage is open to the sun, the blackened trunks of dead trees still standing as a reminder of the 2008 blaze.

Just before noon on July 26 of that year, the fire sparked west of here in the North Absaroka Wilderness. For three months, the blaze burned north and east through stands of spruce and Douglas fir ravaged by bark beetles.

"This was a multispecies stand in here before the fire with some spruce, Doug fir and some pine," Haas said. "We chose Doug fir to plant. It's most likely to regenerate after planting."

With their tree baskets and shovels, members of the planting crew scattered across the drainage, visible through the deadfall in their brightly colored hard hats.

Contracted from Summit Forests Inc., of Ashland, Ore., the men have been instructed to plant their trees in shade roughly nine feet apart for a density of about 238 trees per acre.

"We felt there was a need to provide some areas of conifer regeneration within the Gunbarrel fire given the severity of the burn in these drainages," said Shoshone Forest silviculturist Jason Brey.

"The areas of these drainages that we're planting lack a seed source. The mature cone-bearing trees burned and much of the seed bank was burned up as well, so we haven't seen much in the way of natural regeneration."

Just inches tall, the seedlings arrive in boxes shipped from a nursery in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The trees were grown from seeds collected on the Shoshone Forest.

The cones were dried and tumbled to extract the seeds.

"They put the seeds in a freezer and keep them until we have a big fire, or a timber sale that doesn't produce the trees we want it to," said forestry technician Joe Vukelich. "There's quite a bit put into that. These cones probably came from this area here."

The seedlings' survival rate is around 50 percent, depending on moisture, Vukelich said. If all goes well, future generations will enjoy the same green forest that was here before the 2008 fire.

"We'll come back in two or three years and measure the seedlings again," Vukelich said. "We monitor for a few years to see how it's doing."

The Worland Business and Professional Women organization donated $5,000 to the effort. The group, one of the last of its kind in Wyoming, has contributed to reforestation efforts since 1964, donating to planting efforts in the Bighorn and Shoshone forests.

On the first day of planting, group president Theresa Badder, vice president Meg Stark and treasurer Colette Tucker made the trip from Worland to Gunbarrel Creek to observe the work.

"It's a living memorial," Badder said. "We have a passion for trees and new growth of trees after fires."

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