'It has to be now': Association making forest health a priority

The Rancho Santa Fe Association has issued a call to action to its residents to preserve the Covenant forest, its valuable “green infrastructure.”

At the Celebrate Our Forest event on Jan. 27, a large crowd showed up to the RSF Golf Club to learn how they can take an active role in ensuring the health of the forest by removing dead and dying trees to reduce fire risk and replacing them with resilient trees,“the right trees in the right places.”

The event was a chance for residents to hear the findings of the RSF Association’s Forest Health and Preservation Committee’s Forest Health Study and gather useful information from booths manned by the San Dieguito River Park Conservancy, California Native Plant Society, Ecology Artisans, RSF Fire Protection District, Tree San Diego, FireWatch and Rancho Environmental Tree Service.

As stated by Bill Beckman, chair of the Forest Health and Preservation committee and shown in a video by Enjet Media that featured sweeping views of the forest, the trees are an important part of Rancho Santa Fe’s history and identity. Much of the southwestern portion of the Covenant was planted with eucalyptus trees by the Santa Fe Railroad Company in the early 1900s, originally intended to be harvested for railroad ties.

“It didn’t prove to be a great experiment but the trees stayed and they’ve become iconic in our community,” said Christy Wilson, chief executive officer of the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation which helped fund the study.

Today, nearly one-fifth of the community is planted with about 56,000 eucalyptus trees.

According to the study conducted by environmental consulting firm Dudek and Tree San Diego, there are an estimated 266,000 trees in Rancho Santa Fe’s forest. Over 224,000 of the estimated forest trees are in fair or good condition, however, 42,000 trees are rated as poor or dead.

Some portions have experienced significant decline due to the drought, pests and diseases. Mike Huff, principal urban forester with Dudek, said eucalyptus trees are in the highest level of decline as well as citrus orchards that have been abandoned.

It is likely that other areas of the Covenant forest will experience these challenges, Beckman said, and the situation needs to be addressed by Covenant members as 95 percent of the forest is located on private property that is outside of the Association and the fire district’s authority.

“This is a community hazard,” said Conor Lenehan, a forester and fire prevention specialist for the RSF Fire Protection District. “We need to reduce the fire risk while still maintaining community aesthetics.”

“If we act today to do the right things with regard to our Covenant area forest, we will have a profound, positive impact on our community for many generations to come,” Beckman said. “If not us, then who? If not now, then when? It has to be us. It has to be now.”

While taking care of the community’s forest has economic benefits (trees boost a home’s property value by a minimum of 10 percent and up to 20 percent), it is also important for wildfire prevention. Wildfires in California have increased in frequency and severity and the state has recently experienced the most destructive and devastating wildfires in U.S. history, Lenahan said.

“The entire district is considered to be a very high fire hazard severity zone,” Lenahan said. “Due to our Mediterranean climate, the amount of dense vegetation that we have and the topography, we have the ability to have a mega-wildfire here in Rancho Santa Fe.”

The threat of wildfire is year-round and the community needs to address dead and dying trees to mitigate the effect, he said. Dead trees do not increase the probability of a fire but they will contribute to the spread and intensity of a fire.

“Fire safety may be the biggest challenge we face today,” said Caitlin Kreutz, parks and recreation assistant manager. “Most people think that wildfires are an uncontrollable act of nature. In reality we can reduce the ignition potential of our homes and their immediate surroundings.”

Lenahan said there is an urgent need for residents to make their homes fire-resistant and improve defensible space—defensible space requirements are 100 feet from structures and 30 feet of clearance from roadways to allow for safe evacuations.

Lenahan said the first 50 feet next to a home should be planted with drought tolerant landscape with no mulch within 12 inches of a structure. Trees should be pruned back from roofs and eaves and efforts should be made to reduce ladder fuels.

In the next 50 feet, Lenahan said homeowners should thin out native vegetation and mow weeds to less than six inches in height.

“Preparation and planning must begin long before smoke appears on the horizon,” Kreutz said. “Wildfires may be inevitable but the destruction of our property is avoidable.”

As part of the report, both Dudek and Tree San Diego made recommendations on the next steps which include the implementation of a eucalyptus management program and the formation of tree stewards, volunteers who help property owners in assuring the continued health of the forest.

The Association has been proactive in its approach, Kreutz said. Last year they secured a $83,303 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service that will allow the Association to reduce wildfire risk by removing highly flammable invasive species on the Arroyo Preserve and along the San Dieguito River, the biggest fire corridor in the Ranch.

Kreutz said they have also partnered with FireSafe to provide more research that enables Rancho Santa Fe to be more fire safe and fire ready this year.

More than anything, they need community buy-in, Beckman said.

“The best thing about the community is when there’s a need, something that needs to be done, people rally around it,” Wilson said. “And I see this as an opportunity for everyone to play his or her part. We understand the problem now, we have to figure out how we can implement the solution.”

Anyone who needs advice about their property can contact the RSF Association to schedule a complimentary 30-minute landscape consultation. Consultation includes pest and disease diagnosis as well as planting and tree recommendations and referrals. Contact the Association at (858) 756-1174 or RSFA@rsfassociation.org

Those who would like to have their property inspected for vegetation management compliance can contact Rancho Santa Fe Fire’s Fire Prevention Bureau at (858) 756-5971 or Scheduling@RSF-Fire.org. More information on defensible space and vegetation management can be found at rsf-fire.org/vegetation-management/

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