Project for the Land, Water and Trees
The purpose of Harbin’s Reforestation Program is to replace many of the forests and shade trees that were burned in the 2015 Valley Fire. Our goal is to re-beautify our land, preserve our watersheds, clean our air, prepare for and avert future fires, and help to maintain Harbin’s natural, healthy ecosystem for decades to come.
With thousands of acres and hundreds of thousands of trees burned, that’s a very big job. It’s also one that is especially labor intensive, because most of our pine trees and firs are not naturally re-seeding themselves. This fire was so remarkably hot, that the seeds that usually are activated by fire were instead destroyed. That means if we want to see and enjoy new, healthy Harbin forests in our lifetimes, it’s up to us to do the big work now. And we need your help: please donate now to help us ensure that the next planting season has new trees.
Like any organic process, of course, reforesting is unpredictable. There are so many variables, including the challenges of finding enough suitable seed stock, the vagaries of the weather, the availability of enough workers at exactly the right times, our ability to secure adequate funding, and the fact that our management team is trying to coordinate all of this at the same time we’re working so hard to reopen our retreat center. There are a lot of balls in the air. Our goal is to reforest Harbin on a predictable yearly schedule – but as with so many aspects of our reopening, timelines and dates might be fluid.
Our Overall Plan
Together with our consulting forester, we have created a plan to replace the majority of Harbin’s burned trees – while preserving the general character of our land, its natural bio-diversity, and appropriate wildlife habitats and fire breaks. Because we have so much land, and because reforesting involves so much more than simply sticking seedlings in the ground, we’ve divided our plan into multiple, yearly phases. This phased approach is helping us to keep the process manageable and fundable, and to learn and adapt as we go.
To begin, we’ve been focusing on some of the burned areas that are most visible to our guests and most easily accessible to us: the road into Harbin, Harbin’s pool and Mainside areas, our existing trail areas, and the hillsides around and behind Harbin canyon. In later phases, we’ll extend our reforestation work farther up Harbin mountain, and onto Harbin’s less-seen adjacent acreage.
What We’ve Done So Far
As of this writing (June, 2017), we have completed the initial phase of our reforestation program. In that initial phase, we: • Cut down and cleared the majority of dead trees and brush from around our pools and Mainside area; we also began clearing on the south side of Harbin Springs Road. You’ll notice that in most of these cleared areas we’ve left a few dead trees standing: these are for wildlife habitat. • Planted 50,000 Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine seedlings on the cooler, north-facing slopes of these areas and the most easily accessible north-facing slopes of our Diamond-D property, where the sun and soil conditions are most favorable for their success. • Researched and implemented an environmentally sustainable weed-abatement protocol that helps to ensure the viability of our new trees without the use of chemical herbicides. • Planned for the planting of 50,000 additional pine and fir seedlings, either this winter or next. • Applied for and are on track to receive governmental reimbursement for up to 90% of the cost of the seed stock and labor we purchased for our initial phase of reforestation.
State Financial Reimbursement
Trees maintain life: they clean the air and water, they provide shade and habitat for humans, insects, animals and birds, they preserve the soil and streams by protecting against erosion, and they look beautiful. Our forward-thinking State government has long recognized the importance of forests, and created several programs to support large-scale reforestation by reimbursing landowners who plant and maintain their new forests responsibly.
With the guidance and support of our consulting forester, Harbin has begun actively to pursue several of these cost-sharing programs. We are delighted to report that we are working to comply with their parameters: pending the cutting of more dead trees along Harbin Springs Road, we anticipate receiving rebates of 75%-90% of the money we’ve outlaid to date for reforestation. With reimbursements like these rolled into our budget, every dollar we spend on reforestation – including every dollar you donate – could well buy much more than a dollar’s worth of new trees and the labor to plant them.
We will continue to research and apply for reforestation cost-sharing reimbursements. While none of these programs are guaranteed to us, we expect that significant levels of reimbursement will come Harbin’s way, and that the donations you give will be significantly furthered by these monies.
The Plan For This Year
Planting season is typically December-March, depending on the weather – and that’s why we’re asking for your help today. Our plan for this coming planting season (or next, if the weather, seedling and labor availability, and other variables don’t exactly fall into place) is to focus most heavily on preparing and reforesting the north-facing hills visible around Mainside, above the creek beside our lower road and leading to the former resident village, and on the hillsides up toward the mountains beyond the meadow and Boggs Spring road. We need to purchase 50,000 Douglas-fir, ponderosa and sugar pine seedlings for this phase of the program; with your help, we hope to be able to do that.
This next phase of reforesting is an ambitious undertaking that will require us, first, to cut new access trails into the steep hillsides; then we must cut and dispose of most of the dead trees (“lop and scatter” or “lop and burn”, in forester lingo); clear any accumulated brush (as more time passes after a fire, more and more brush takes hold and takes over); dig holes and plant the trees; and then come back to each seedling to place an environmentally benign “mulching mat” around it – to suppress weeds and support the viability of each tree.
Additionally, we plan to continue clearing many of the dead standing trees along Harbin Springs Road; to revisit the seedlings we planted last year, to make sure they’re doing well (anything better than 50% survival is technically “doing well”; our forester is hoping we’ll see better than 80%); and to hand-clear any weeds that have managed to sneak around or through the mulching mats.
Choosing Species and Stock
Like all living things, trees are adapted to their specific environmental conditions: sunlight and photoperiod, temperatures, rainfall, and soil content are all significant factors – as are the specific slope angle and altitude of the planting site. Planting a successful forest, therefore, begins with choosing both the right tree species, and the right specific seed stock.
Based on the recommendations of our consulting forester, we have chosen Douglas-fir, ponderosa and sugar pine for our densest planting, because they are native species that do particularly well in Harbin’s conditions; and we plant these trees on our north-facing slopes because they are best adapted to the slightly reduced sunlight and cooler temperatures there. On our warmer south-facing slopes, we’ll plant oaks and other hardwoods that are better adapted to more heat.
As for our seed stock, we order it from very specific nurseries up to a year in advance – as we must, because we want to ensure that we get high-quality stock (better roots, more likely to thrive) grown for our specific altitude and other micro-climate conditions. As with so many aspects of our reforestation process, our consulting forester has been invaluable in helping us to select what types of trees to plant, where to plant them, and at what density – to re-beautify the land, restore habitat, control erosion, and manage against future fires.
Accessing and Preparing the Land
For a retreat center with so many miles of designated and maintained hiking trails, you’d be surprised how many large swaths of Harbin’s land can be accessed only through very intense bushwhacking. And that makes reforesting really hard. So one of the first steps in our process – even before we can clear the land of dead tress and brush – is creating access to it.
When you next visit Harbin, you’ll notice new access trails cut into several of the burned hillsides. These trails are, in themselves, a major project to create. But they are necessary so that our re-foresters can get safely into far-away and steeply sloped areas, and bring with them the materials and equipment to fell and scatter dead trees, clear brush, create and control managed-burn piles, dig holes, plant trees, place mulching mats, and return in the future to check on and manage their seedlings.
As a bonus, every new forestry trail we cut now will one day become a new Harbin hiking trail for you to explore, and from which you can watch, year by year, as our new forests take hold, grow, and mature.
Avoiding Toxic Chemicals
The typical way to plant a new forest is to liberally drench one’s land, both before and after planting, with the same harsh chemical that has become so ubiquitous – and unhealthy – in our country’s conventional food crops and wine. This chemical kills everything we don’t want; but it is also toxic to the land, water, air, bugs, birds, animals, and every living thing including people (which explains why it’s banned in so many other countries). When we found out that this is how virtually all reforesting happens today in America, we simply said, “Not At Harbin.”
Instead of preventing weeds chemically, we’re using “mulching mats”. Mulching mats are flat squares of paper fiber, about 3’ x 3’, with a little hole cut in the middle. After each seedling is planted, another worker comes by and carefully places one of these mats around the base of each planted seedling. The mat prevents weeds by smothering them and creating mulch, which enriches the soil. Each seedling grows unimpeded, and after a couple of years, when the tree is larger and hardy enough to compete successfully for water, minerals and sunlight, the mat decomposes. Using these mats adds significantly to the materials and labor costs of reforesting our land – in fact, buying and installing these mats costs more than buying and installing the trees themselves; but we’re steadfast in our conviction that their benefits far outweigh their price.
As you drive past the fork at the top of Harbin Springs Road and head toward our gate, you’ll notice that some of the hillsides to your left are checkered with tan squares. These are our mulching mats – each with a new Harbin tree growing proudly at its center.
Ensuring That Our Trees Thrive
Sometimes it’s not enough just to rid the land of burned trees, to clear it of brush, to plant in healthy soil on an appropriate site with strong seed stock, and to give each seedling a fighting chance by protecting it from competing weeds. Sometimes it takes a bit more: a re-visit from one of our forest workers, six months or a year or two years after that seedling is planted.
The purpose of each revisit is to check on the trees in general, and see how they – and we – are doing. To assess how well we’ve prepared the land, chosen our species and stock, planted it, and placed our mulching mats. Is each particular hillside and our new forest in general matching our 80% seedling-survival target? The way to best ensure that it is, is to come back and check: to revisit every tree at least one time, see how it’s doing, inspect for pests, pull weeds if necessary, and tidy up its mat. It’s not our goal just to put tiny trees in the ground and hope: we’re planting Harbin’s future, and that takes a commitment of dedication.
Supporting The Air, Soil, Water, and Animals
A forest isn’t just about the trees. Yes, the trees are the most visible and obvious part; but through the interconnectedness of all things, every tree has an impact far beyond its diameter and drip line.
Planting a tree sends roots into the soil; roots keep soil from eroding and hillsides from sliding, and that keeps silt out of our watersheds and streams. Trees also clean vast amounts of water by filtering it through their cells. They clean carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses from the air through photosynthesis, and they give off pure oxygen; Lake County has for years been recognized as having among the cleanest air in the country – and our forests, so many of which have burned, have been integral to that. For bugs and birds and animals, trees provide habitat for food, shelter, nesting, and mating. They cool the air in our increasingly hot summers. And, of course, they’re just beautiful: standing lone, tall and proud, or swaying gently in the breeze, or growing into a new hillside forest one tiny seedling at a time, they calm the mind and fill one with hope.