Site Tests in Spring Creek

The Site Productivity Assessment

In June 2018 the Spring Creek Fire erupted claiming 108,045 acres of land in the third largest wildfire in Colorado history. This sets the stage for where Land Life is focusing its restoration efforts in Southern Colorado. With our first 160,000 seedlings successfully planted this year and another 340,000 native seedlings planned to be planted over the next 18 months, we need to do some research and collect data to make sure our planting is the best it can be. The area of land for our project was degraded in 2018 due to high-intensity wildfires. We plan to restore this area to create healthy forests with the trees that are indigenous to the area. To figure out which trees will thrive and be the least susceptible to fire, as well as understanding the potential productivity of the project in terms of reviving biodiversity, rebuilding ecosystems and capturing carbon, we need to collect data from the surrounding, existing forest. 

As such, we are conducting a site productivity assessment together with the University of Arizona’s Laboratory of Tree Ring Research. The University of Arizona is renowned globally for its specialization in dendrochronology. The Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research was established by the pioneer of dendrochronology, Andrew Ellicott Douglass in 1937, so we were very excited to be working with them to better understand this geographical area tree-wise. 

The main aims of this assessment are to firstly,  improve the accuracy of our carbon capture predictions, which we can do by collecting more accurate growth data and looking at sites that represent our planting plots. Secondly, to use existing areas of forest in areas close to the planting site to assess the sensitivity of the species we intend to plant, by getting a full understanding of how they have reacted in the past to climate change, variations in conditions and extreme circumstances.

The protocol included methods such as tree height, treewidth, LiDAR scan, soil samples, crown coverage, and tree coring. The tree coring is for dendrochronology, an interdisciplinary scientific technique that studies tree rings. Scientists only need a core sample around the size of a straw to study a tree. This core can be used to accurately date tree rings and analyze the growth over a tree’s lifetime. As trees grow and age, they form new distinctive rings and every year, they develop a new circle of dead wood around the trunk. In that ring, information about precipitation, temperature and other data about that year can be found.

The trials began early, with North American team Project Manager, Zoe Hall leading the team into the field. To get to the first site of the SPA there was a river crossing where it was necessary to delicately balance on a series of rocks then grab hold of a tree and jump to the other side. It was quite the process to get people across let alone all the equipment. Then the site itself was a dense young site on a very steep slope. A hardy site to say the least, but the crew moved through the obstacles beautifully.

Flurin Babst, Assistant Research Professor at the University of Arizona, brought Ellie Broadman, a postdoc, Charlie Devine, a PhD student, and three undergraduate students, Lia Goutis, Jill Eliel and Emerson Martin, to help conduct the assessment. Flurin said, “I love being involved with projects like this because this is where science meets application. It’s nice to know my research will be used in real-time to make a difference.” Sites were selected based on trying to get an overall understanding of the forest structure in the region. 

A LiDAR scan was also taken of the Tres Valles West property. To sample a whole plot it took around three hours. 12 different scans were taken in different areas, with each scan lasting around 12 minutes. While the LiDAR was scanning, the team collected other data like tree crown radius or core trees but as to not interfere with the scan. Flurin would call out “SCAN COMING” and everyone would stop what they were doing and duck down. It was a glimpse at the more comedic site of checking site productivity.

While collecting data, the team came upon a site with the most incredible trees. A stand of extremely old and large Bristlecone pines. (Bristlecone pine trees are usually short, little trees so at first there were some debates over the species,) but once they came to a consensus they were just in awe of how magnificent they were. Later, it was found that the plot had been the state champion for Bristlecones. Our crew had beautiful, vast views of the Colorado alpine zone during the whole process. 

In this context, we hope to understand the representative growth of the tree samples at different stages, understand how the climate has affected tree growth and conduct a full site productivity assessment that will provide us with deep insight into the carbon sequestration potential of the planned post-wildfire restoration in the Spring Creek fire site in Southern Colorado. Additionally, the data collected will help us ensure the reforestation is a success and help determine the necessary future management of this area. By understanding all of this, we can help make sure there are notable benefits for local ecosystem recovery and diversity, as well as for forest restoration and forest carbon management efforts elsewhere.