Chronicle: Saving the Torrey pines in the state reserve, a complicated puzzle to solve

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

Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve is one of San Diego’s gems, 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 pine trees that make this such a special place.

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

From the eroded sandstone cliffs, visitors can sometimes look out to sea and catch a glimpse of a whale spouting, or gaze at a cross-sectional landscape that tells the story of Earth’s creation dating back 50 million years.

The many friends of this prized natural space have plenty of ideas on what to do to save the pines, but it’s not an easy solution.

Suggestions range from “just watering the trees” to “creating a botanical garden” or “allowing the trees to burn to encourage natural regrowth.” Some have proposed eradicating bark beetles, but they have a role in the natural balance.

It’s much more complicated.

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

The good news is that some very special friends of the park have come together to bring a science-based approach to studying the changes, the whys, and the best way forward at a time they believe of rapidly changing climatic conditions. .

Historically, managing Torrey Pines was about “live and let live” as change happened.

“But it got harder to just look at it,” Smith said after one of the reservation’s lushest groves withered and died over a three-year period between 2014 and 2017.

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

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

Christa Horn (left), Cara Stafford and Darren Smith in the Dead Grove at Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve.

(Ernie Cowan / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

On a cloudy morning last week, I joined a talented group of conservationists along the popular Guy Fleming Trail to better understand what’s going on at Torrey Pines.

Mariposa lilies, wild buckwheat and delicate thread lettuce flowers greeted us along the way.

During our hike, I was fortunate enough to visit Smith, Cara Stafford, who is also the park’s environmental specialist; Christa Horn, conservation program manager for 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 mortality rate of rare pines.

Smith said that in 2006, 3,200 trees were counted in the reserve of less than 2,000 acres. In 2018, 500 people died after a prolonged drought destroyed their ability to produce sap to resist bark beetles. This small grove of struggling trees is the only natural stand of Torrey pines on the continental United States.

Senior Environmental Scientist Darren Smith examines a young Torrey Pine surrounded by dead trees.

Senior Environmental Scientist Darren Smith examines a young Torrey Pine surrounded by dead trees.

(Ernie Cowan / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Over the years, one strategy was to simply plant new trees throughout the park. But it was random with no science involved.

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

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

The ultimate answers will likely involve a series of solutions, and as the climate continues to change, some species may disappear from the reserve.

“It’s very complicated and it’s a big headache,” said Horn.

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

But science is getting smarter and as the pace of change accelerates, it has become clear that there needs to be a new approach.

“We need to measure what nature is telling us, so we can learn and be more effective,” said plant advocate Heineman.

Seedlings grown at San Diego Zoo Safari Park were planted about a year ago in the Guy Fleming Grove where tree death occurred so quickly. These saplings and the conditions around them are closely monitored.

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

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

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

Chances are, the Torrey Pines Reservation looks nothing like it did when the Kumeyaay arrived here thousands of years ago. There will always be change.

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

Although things may change, the goal here will always be to stay natural. It’s a rare and valuable thing along the Southern California urban coast.

It is a place of incredible natural beauty where one can sit and gaze at a landscape that has suffered minimal impact from modern civilization. The spirit can soar from the colorful cliffs to the distant ocean and perhaps briefly connect with those who first called this place home.

Future generations may see a completely different Torrey Pines Nature Preserve if weather conditions continue to change. In the meantime, dedicated scientists and passionate volunteers will continue their work to preserve the natural beauty of this small, rugged outpost.

It’s good to have friends.

Cowan is a freelance columnist. Email [email protected] or visit

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