Recent forest fires resulted in a quarter of the Angeles National Forest being burned to a crisp. More than 160,000 acres of wood and chaparral were destroyed. Impassioned editorials are calling for the restoration of the forest’s beauty spots and trails, but what is the political cost of restoring the environment at a pace faster than nature’s, or of failing to do so?
Natural regenaration causes its own problems
The chaparral will reappear within a couple of seasons, and the trees will begin to regenerate although for some species, seed germination won’t be possible until years of rain-water leaching remove the carbonised layer of ash and debris from the soil surface. While pines are willing to push through anything, oak is less rugged, and seedling trees don’t tolerate soil acidity as nearly as well, tending to fail before the end of their first year if they can’t get their roots down into rich humus.
Without tree cover, there is more damage on the way. If there are strong winter rains, then landslides will sluice fallen branches and trees down the steep slopes, pushing over remaining plants and creating debris jams in the watercourses with two results: denuded hillsides and flooded lower lands. Jams mean that water can’t run cleanly or well and that means that fish like trout, which rely on clear, fast running streams, die.
Recreation versus regenaration
But The Angeles is not just an area of forest – it’s a massive escape route for the people who live near it. From Patrick Swayze, who owned the five acre Rancho Bizarro at the foot of the forest, through to the poorest Angeleno who hitches to the Angeles to backpack the forest trails, the National Forest is both a green lung and a vast playground.
Not all visitors are enthralled by the beauty of the landscape: biker gangs frequently cut new trails through the woodland, and are hunted in turn by rangers, while gangs growing marijuana find or create clearings in which they can establish their crops. One of the strangest illegal activities in The Angeles is the searching out of hidden Native American sites, often to be found in caves hidden in the hills, and the looting of sacred items left there by previous generations of shamans and artists.
Another area of conflict that will appear very rapidly is that when a quarter of a habitat disappears, many animals need to relocate. They will move into other areas of the forest, but because human habitation now presses right up to the edges of the forest, they will also move into backyards and gardens, and while the odd rabbit or raccoon might not present too much of a problem, the migration of rattlesnakes will present many families with nightmares and mule deer stripping suburban yards of all their carefully nurtured plants will be very unpopular. And that’s without the mountain lions and bears …
Managing habitats requires funding and people
So funding the restoration of the habitat has to be a priority, for several reasons – the tourism factor, the need to ensure Los Angeles has enough greenery to act as a pollution soak, and the simple fact that failing to remedy the effects of fire will lead to greater problems later as invasive species, both plant and animal, take over the scorched spaces.
The great problem is that the earliest re-growth is the ecosystem that requires most management. Chaparral is a mixture of hardy small trees and shrubs such as scrub oak and ceanothus, Manzanita and bush rue, many of which will, in seven to twelve years, have become largely old, dead wood. This wood acts as a tinder to forest fires. And managing chaparral is a labour-intensive business – it has to be stripped out by hand or grazed by goats or mountain sheep, and the Forest has been understaffed by rangers, let alone foresters, for years.
However, there’s no obvious political will as yet to establish a large-scale reinvestment programme for the Forest and until some substantial replanning of the Forestry resources occurs, it will continue to be a fire risk.