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Guest commentary: Saving Torrey pines at state reserve is a complicated puzzle to solve

Cara Stafford, a park environmental scientist, checks bark beetle traps at the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
(Ernie Cowan)

There are times when Mother Nature needs a little help from her friends.

The Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is one of San Diego’s jewels, and after years of drought and the ravages of bark beetles, the iconic pines are dying at an alarming rate.

It’s not just the pines that make this such a special place.

It is home to a collection of wild creatures not seen in urban areas and breathtaking vistas of earth, sky and ocean.

From the eroded sandstone cliffs, visitors may sometimes look seaward and spot the spouting of a breaching whale or gaze across a cutaway landscape that tells a story of Earth’s creation going back 50 million years.

The many friends of this prized natural area have plenty of ideas on what should be done to save the pines, but it’s not an easy fix.

Suggestions have ranged from “just water the trees” to “create a botanical garden,” or “allow the trees to burn to encourage natural regrowth.” Some have suggested that the bark beetles be eradicated, but they have a role in the natural balance.

It’s far more complicated.

“Right now, we have more questions than answers,” said Darren Smith, State Parks senior environmental scientist for Torrey Pines.

The good news is that some very special park friends have come together to bring a scientific approach to studying the changes, the whys and the best path for the future.

Historically, the management method for Torrey Pines was to “live and let live” as changes happened.

“But it became harder to just watch it,” Smith said after one of the reserve’s lushest groves withered and died between 2014 and 2017.

Smith needed help. At the suggestion of park volunteer Rick Gulley, now president of the Torrey Pines Conservancy, Smith reached out to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, which has both local interest and scientific skills needed to help find answers.

Ultimately, a team of scientists was formed to study how changing climate conditions were impacting the precious Torrey pines. If there is any agreement, it’s that the biggest stressor on the Torrey pines is the changing weather.

Christa Horn, Cara Stafford and Darren Smith (from left) check out a dead grove in the Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
(Ernie Cowan)

On a recent overcast morning, I joined a talented group of conservation specialists along the popular Guy Fleming Trail to get a better understanding of what’s happening at Torrey Pines.

Mariposa lilies, wild buckwheat and the delicate blossoms of wire lettuce greeted us along the path.

As we hiked, I had a chance to visit with Smith; Cara Stafford, also a park environmental scientist; Christa Horn, conservation program manager from the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance; and Katie Heineman, vice president of science and conversation at the Center for Plant Conversation, a nonprofit associated with the zoo.

The immediate concern is the rapid death rate of the rare pines.

Smith said that in 2006 there were 3,200 trees counted within the less than 2,000-acre reserve. By 2018, 500 had died after prolonged drought destroyed their ability to produce sap that enables them to resist bark beetles. This tiny, struggling grove of trees is the only natural stand of Torrey pines on the mainland United States.

Senior environmental scientist Darren Smith examines a young Torrey pine that is surrounded by trees that died.
(Ernie Cowan)

One strategy over the years was simply to plant new trees throughout the park. But that was hit or miss, with no science involved.

“There were lots of trees planted, but no coordinated effort,” Stafford said. “Our approach has been less intervention, but things are changing so fast, we have to act, but be mindful of balance.”

“The end goal is to build a management plan to identify the best planting locations with the least amount of stress on the trees,” Horn said.

Ultimate answers likely will involve a suite of solutions, and as climate continues to change, there may be species that will disappear from the reserve.

“It’s very complicated and a big-picture puzzle,” Horn said.

Past efforts were often emotion-driven. Visitors love the beauty and unique quality of the twisted pines and often participated in well-meaning efforts to plant new trees.

But science is getting smarter, and as the rate of change accelerates, it became apparent that there must be a new approach.

“We have to measure what nature is telling us so we can learn and be most effective,” Heineman said.

Seedlings grown at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park were planted about a year ago in the Guy Fleming Grove, where the die-off of trees occurred so quickly. These young trees and the conditions around them are being closely monitored.

Growth and survival rates, available light, weather, beetle activity, litter depth and soil samples are all being measured.

“We are doing this here because it’s an area historically rich in Torrey pines,” Horn said. “We want to see what lives or dies and determine why.”

Over time, the collected data may suggest areas where Torrey pines have the best chance of survival.

There is a good chance that the Torrey Pines reserve looks nothing like it did when the Kumeyaay first arrived here thousands of years ago. There will always be change.

But the name of this place is Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, and those with foresight understood how precious this place is where land meets sea. There are only 16 such reserves in California’s state park system.

While things may change, the goal here will always be to keep it natural. That’s a rare and treasured thing along Southern California’s urban coast.

Dedicated scientists and passionate volunteers will continue their work to preserve the natural beauty in this tiny outpost of wilderness.

It’s good to have friends.

Ernie Cowan is a freelance columnist. This article was originally published by The San Diego-Union Tribune. To contact Cowan, email ernie@packtrain.com or visit erniesoutdoors.blogspot.com.