Regenerating Cuyamaca

Cuyamaca fire

Fire! And not just any old fire. In October of 2003, the Cedar Fire burned over 280,000 acres of southern San Diego County. It destroyed more than 2,800 structures, including 2,232 homes, and killed 15 people. It is the worst fire on record in California.

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park was severely affected by the Cedar Fire. Over 98% of the park burned. Along with other park structures, the historic museum building—known as the Dyar House—was destroyed. Perhaps worse than the loss of the structures, however, was the destruction of greater than 95% of the park’s conifers and their seeds due to the high intensity of the fire. This was an especially bad situation because of the loss all over San Diego County of montane mixed conifer forest, from the Cedar Fire and other fires. Between 2002 and 2007, more than half of this forest in the county was burned in wildfires, mostly high-intensity fires.

Cuyamaca hikers

Normally California State Parks would regard wildfire as a natural process and not reforest, except for erosion mitigation. But studies showed that the forest was too severely burned to recover by itself. And not only human homes were destroyed. The loss of the forest meant loss of animal habitat, including some protected species that were in the park before the fire. The normal mix of native plant species also was displaced, as invasive plants took the opportunity to move into the fire-cleared areas.

Something had to be done before these changes became permanent. In 2007 California State Parks teamed up with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) to begin reforestation of Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, using a mix of native trees that matches what previously existed in the park.
Companies and private individuals have contributed to make the reforestation possible. Donors include Stater Brothers markets, Conoco Phillips, Coca Cola, Odwalla, and the Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Interpretive Association. The California State Parks Foundation is soliciting private donations to boost the effort.

Cuyamaca planting

The reforestation will have other benefits besides restoring plant and animal habitat. It will protect the water quality for suburban San Diego County, since Cuyamaca Rancho State Park makes up a large part of the watershed for the suburban water system. It will improve the quality of recreation in what was the largest forested public park in the county. It will slow the pace of climate change by restoring forests that absorb atmospheric carbon.

The Cuyamaca Rancho State Park Reforestation Project’s excellence has been recognized. The project underwent a rigorous third party verification to become the first reforestation project and first project on public lands to be registered at the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit public benefit corporation that serves as a voluntary greenhouse gas registry to protect, encourage, and promote early actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010, the project received the “Bright Ideas” award from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. It also received the CAL FIRE director’s partnership award that same year, given for demonstrating the ability of state agencies to be creative in identifying efforts that are complementary to more than one agency’s mission.

Forest reborn

Better than awards is the knowledge that the reforestation is taking root—literally. As of February 2013, 1,200 acres have been planted with approximately 350,000 mixed conifer seedlings. The survival rate has ranged from 70% to 90% over the last two years. Planting activities will continue through the year 2020.

The Dyar House and other lost structures may never be rebuilt. But at least the forest is returning for the benefit of park visitors, plants, animals, and the planet.
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