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Regeneration is a hands-on process at the Basalt Mountain burn scar

Nearly 6 years after the start of the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt, Colorado, a project is underway to reforest the burn scar. But the undertaking is much more complex than simply scattering seeds or trusting nature to take it’s course.

Even with the regeneration project having just started, crews have still managed to plant over 17-thousand of the 79-thousand total seedlings. 

The seedlings are gathered from nearby areas, giving them a genetic advantage when eventually planted. Some of the seeds used to create these seedlings come from the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District, Crooked Creek Pass, and the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

For projects like this, they’re taken from storage facilities, transported to the sites in, and stored in refrigerated units until they are put into the ground. It is paramount for stewards of the seedlings that they are in the best condition, to improve the chances of survival. 

*AMBI CUT begins and under*

Atop Basalt Mountain, branches crack loudly underfoot, bone white and charcoal black against the lush ground. Birds chirp from high above, and mosquitoes buzz despite the dryness.

Amongst the trees that are still standing, a troupe of contracted workers trek along in the heat. The baskets hanging at their sides rustle, filled with the precious seedlings. Workers are equipped with approximately 250 at any time, and have to dig the holes for each seedling manually.

Many workers are migrants, with Spanish being their native language. 

Pedro Cruz has been doing this kind of work for about 5 years, and with the translation help of White River National Forest information assistant, Iris [Ee-rees] Salamanca he shares more about his time doing this kind of work. 

Salamanca: De donde eres, Pedro?

Cruz: Mexico. Querétaro, Mexico.

Salamanca: Okay, sí.

Rensberry: How did you hear about this job? What got you interested?

Salamanca: Cómo escuchaste del trabajo? Qué te interesó en agarrar este trabajo?

Cruz: Pues más que nada porque ... hay un chingo de trabajo y la verdad sí se ocupa trabajar.

Salamanca: There's a lot of work, and well, need to work.

Rensberry: Are you familiar with the fire that that caused all of this?

Salamanca: Tu sabes del incendio que causoto esto?

Cruz: Eh, no. No pero saber que sí, como fuerte.

Salamanca: No, he doesn't know. But he can tell that it just was a pretty strong fire.

Rensberry: What should people know about this job?

Salamanca: ¿Qué es algo que tu quieres que la gente sepa en este tipo de trabajo?

Cruz: De este tipo trabajo... pues que es un buen trabajo por el hecho de que estás, ya sabes, estás reforestando las sierras.

Salamanca: That its a good job for the fact that you're, you know, you're reforesting the sierras.

Rensberry: Un foto, por favor?

Cruz: Ah, si.

Rensberry: Gracias.

Cruz: Mucho gusto.

Rensberry: Mucho gusto. *

Cruz and the rest of the crew continue on, their brisk pace leaving the collection of visitors in the dust. They have quotas to keep and deadlines to meet, as well as seedlings drying out in their satchels by the minute. 

Not every burn area needs this kind of hands-on approach, but in the case of sites like Basalt Mountain, the soil and plant matter can be too damaged for very many seeds to sprout within a human lifetime. Although eventually vegetation may return, public pressure to regain the trees and concerns over the forest’s overall health can cause government agencies to step in. 

"Then I even have plot grids where all the units are because we have to do a one percent sample and there's a whole protocol. Oh yeah, here's our kind of like this is infrared but we're in this unit right here."

That’s Sarah Pearson, a specialist in forest regeneration work with the U.S. Forest Service. Pearson has taken on similar projects throughout Colorado over her decades-long career, and says that getting the seedlings into the ground is just the first hurdle. Here she is again:

"So on the western side, a lot of times, the biggest problem is cows and sheep. But then at Dillon, you have a lot of people, but Oh, but I've actually done lots of work of planting in campgrounds, which is about the highest human use you could possibly have.
Fairly successful, but the key was to put the trees in where people don't congregate. The hard part is, is trying to get it to mesh of what the people want versus where the trees want to grow. Because I had a few issues there where, okay, I know why people wanted trees there, but I'm like, a tree does not want to grow there. You know, so, okay, we can try, but we're going to have dead trees.

If I'm going to plant a site, part of it is looking around and seeing what species were here before. You know, because you figure whatever was here before is probably the most adopted species for this area. So right now, at least, which I mean, climate change could change my thinking.

I'm kind of still trying to go with what is here and what the ground wants to support. You know, people are impatient. You know, you see the fire right in your face and it's tragic and people get really emotional, which is justifiable. It's very upsetting to see a fire. And I'm sure, especially Lake Christine.

Because even being around town, I hardly talk to anybody and I mention it and they're like, oh my gosh, that was crazy. So that's something right there. I think people wanna do things right away. It's a crisis right now, but you know, it's hard. But like myself, I'd like to take a step back and see what we have and then in the case of here, actually have a little time to collect some appropriate seed.

Because for better or for worse, given the fact that I've been primarily the person doing the seed and I happen to be stationed in di, I've done better there because it's. easier. And I've tried to do as much over here as I can, but it's just hard. We're spread so thin. It's just everything is a lot more complex than you would ever think."

Although not every sprouted pine and spruce popping up between the charred trunks is planted by human hands, if all goes as intended the work of forest service employees and the contractors will help bring back more greenery to the mountain side within our lifetimes.

*** Transcription of Spanish audio in this article was done with limited tools by a non-fluent Spanish speaker. If you notice a mistake and would like to suggest a correction, please email: hattie@kdnk.org

Hattison Rensberry has a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design and Drawing, but has worked for newsrooms in various capacities since 2019.