Seeds of tomorrow

City project aims to replenish canopy of oak trees in Lower Bidwell Park

Volunteers watch as Chico Urban Forest Manager Richie Bamlet digs a hole where acorns will be planted.

Volunteers watch as Chico Urban Forest Manager Richie Bamlet digs a hole where acorns will be planted.

Photo by Kevin Fuller

Chico Urban Forest Manager Richie Bamlet isn’t content to sit back and let nature take its course when it comes to reviving Lower Bidwell Park’s tree canopy.

“Some people have said, ‘Why don’t you just let the squirrels do it,’” he said. “Well, they kinda eat some of the merchandise themselves.”

On a recent morning, Bamlett and about 20 volunteers dug up dirt and planted acorns on a patch of grass in front of Sycamore Pool in an effort to not only replace some trees that recently have fallen there but also to spread the tree canopy and help provide a healthy population of oak trees that will fill a gap when many of the park’s aging trees die.

The work was the first of an organized effort by the city in Lower Bidwell Park

“One of the issues we have in Bidwell is we have a lot of mature trees, and they’re kind of coming towards the end of their life,” Bamlet said. “Trees don’t live forever. We need to make sure we have the replacement trees coming in.”

Dozens of the old oak trees have fallen at One-Mile Recreation Area in recent years, due to drought, heavy winds and rains, or just the fact that they were old and vulnerable to the elements. The rest of the park has seen its fair share of oaks crashing to the ground, too. City of Chico staff, Butte Environmental Council (BEC) and Chico Tree Advocates have joined forces to identify areas where the forest canopy needs a hand. (BEC organizes a similar project that focuses on oak restoration in Upper Park.)

“There’s areas that are currently open space, and we’ve looked at it and thought, They’re not fully or heavily utilized as open space, so let’s extend the canopy,” Bamlet said.

The group started with planting acorns near Sycamore Pool and moved on to two other areas in the park. Next up was a plot of land between the pool and ball fields, and then a large area near South Park Drive later in the day.

The groups dug up a couple inches of dirt in about a 3-foot radius. They then took a long circular tube, about 6 inches in diameter and about 3 feet in length, called a Tubex tree shelter, and stamped a circle in the center of the larger hole. Three acorns were placed inside, similar to a Mercedes Benz logo, as Bamlett referenced, with the sprouting side facing the center. The tube was then placed over the three acorns and about an inch of dirt placed on top. City staff then placed large metal protective grates, like ones seen downtown around smaller trees, over the tubes.

Bamlet said three seeds are planted to increase the probability of a tree taking hold because not all the acorns sprout.

“We don’t really know if they’re going to take,” he acknowledged.

The initiative stems from the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan, which aims to ensure oak woodland sustainability by increasing young trees in the park as well as practicing responsible oak landscaping. Bamlet was brought on board about six months ago to oversee city trees.

As for the acorn planting, City Councilman Andrew Coolidge brought the idea to the City Council back in May, following conversations with a citizen who lobbied for the city to do something about the aging tree population in the green space.

“When you look at the park, there’s trees there now, but if we don’t start planting trees to replace them, in 30 to 40 years the park will look completely different,” he told the CN&R by phone.

Coolidge said the council could have directed staff to make the project happen. However, he saw the project as crucial enough to make a resolution. “It was something I thought was important enough where I thought council needed to take a stand and make a vote on,” he said.

The project was approved in time for a fall planting. However, a dry summer almost stalled the effort due to a lack of available acorns.

“We seem to have had a light year this year,” Bamlett said.

Bamlet and Robert Dresden, head naturalist at the Chico Creek Nature Center, collected acorns around the park near some of the most healthy oak trees. They then tested the seeds to see how plantable they were by placing them in a 5-gallon bucket filled with water. Those that rose to the surface were discarded.

“Typically, if they are not mature, or they have bugs in them, they will float,” Bamlet explained.

Dresden then stored the remaining acorns in a box filled with sawdust and kept them in his refrigerator for six weeks in order to mimic winter conditions, so that the seeds would start sprouting right away.

After the seeds were planted, volunteers found existing saplings in the park and placed tubes around them to protect them from being eaten by squirrels and other animals.

The group hopes to continue the project, planting the acorns on a yearly basis, to fill the park with healthy trees of all different ages, helping create a healthy canopy.

“I think if we don’t have that foresight to look to the next 30, 40, 50 years at the park and what it can become—if we’re not looking ahead and planning for that—it’s going to lose a lot of the trees and replacements would take years and years and years to fill in the spots,” Coolidge said. “You have to be active with this.”