It's hard to tell today that Big Tujunga Canyon in the Angeles National Forest burned in a massive fire nearly a decade ago. The chaparral landscape has mostly returned. (Susan Valot/KQED)
When the Spaniards arrived in Southern California, the native landscape reminded them of the oak woodlands back in Spain -- full of lush, impenetrable and dense vegetation. They called it "chaparro," which eventually morphed into what we call it today, "chaparral."
During the 20th century, people tried to get rid of the dense shrubs with hard, thick leaves. Forests provided timber. Grasslands provided grazing areas for livestock. But chaparral was hard to move through and burned fairly regularly. Few people saw value in it.
"There's a whole lot of research on how we could rid ourselves of chaparral. You know, efficient ways to remove it from landscapes, to turn it over to more useful things like grazing or producing quicker runoff that could be captured for human use," said Hugh Safford, the Regional Ecologist for the USDA-Forest Service's Pacific Southwest Region, which includes California.
Chaparral had a bad rap. People didn't understand what it did do: store water in its dense roots, keep hillsides in place, and pull carbon out of the air, helping to reduce global warming.
Now, scientists and ecologists are working to restore native chaparral habitat.
More than 100 experts met in the Los Angeles area earlier this month to talk about how chaparral is handling climate change and ways to restore it.
A small group headed out to a couple of restoration areas, including one in Big Tujunga Canyon, about 25 miles north of downtown L.A. This area burned severely in the massive Station Fire in 2009. It was the largest recorded fire in the history of the Angeles National Forest. The flames ripped through a lot of chaparral.
Much of it has come back. If you look at the steep hillsides here, it's hard to tell that nearly a decade ago, it looked like a moonscape. But some areas, like the Wildwood Picnic Area, were taken over my non-native grasses.
"Just watch out for snakes, okay?" said Edward Belden as the group tramped through the shoe-catching foxtails at the picnic area's restoration site. Belden is with the National Forest Foundation, which is one of the groups overseeing the restoration. He pointed to an area a little ways away.
"You can see this is one of the locations where it still has a ton of annual grasses, but it didn't have hardly anything else other than annual grasses before," Belden said, referring to the years after the fire. "Now you do see, the shrubs are coming back."
Chaparral is known to be a biodiversity hot spot within a very biodiverse California. Many animals, insects and birds rely on the chaparral to survive. And the chaparral has another job in these steep canyons -- it actually holds a lot of soil in place.
"You can go to many other areas where they've tried to put in other plant species to try to hold hillsides and it doesn't work," Belden said.
Chaparral is also pretty flammable. It's designed by nature to burn every few decades, and we've built neighborhoods into that flammable habitat. If you remove chaparral, usually annual grasses will grow back in its place.
"Even though [annual grasses] don't burn very intensely, they do burn, and they burn more frequently," said fire ecologist Marti Witter of the California Fire Science Consortium. Witter is a fire ecologist at the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
Chaparral is also running up against another problem: drought. The lack of water is killing chaparral, similar to how drought has led to the bark beetle die-off of millions of trees in the Sierra Nevada.
Short-term, or acute, droughts kill off chaparral bushes with shallow roots.
"Acute drought is one that's just very intense. Often it's in the wettest month of the year, like February. It's supposed to be rainy and it's not. And those plants haven't had rainfall for nine months," said chaparral expert Stephen Davis of Pepperdine University.
The chaparral with deep roots can tap into other water sources. But when long-term drought comes along, like the one we saw from 2011 to early 2017, the deep-rooted chaparral suffers, too. The weakened plant is not able to fight off fungi, which basically clogs its plumbing system.
Repeated short- and long-term droughts kill the chaparral. Davis said you can see it when you look at photos of the chaparral hillsides behind Pepperdine University in Malibu from the mid 1980s compared to now.
"We're kind of at ground zero, where these events are already happening," said Davis.
While chaparral is naturally fire-prone, it's also resilient and bounces back quickly. Ecologists say we should be focusing on more than the plants themselves to prevent wildfires.
"The real wildfire problem with chaparral isn't that it creates these terrible fire situations, which it certainly does. But those fire situations are caused by people starting fires," Witter said. "If we want to have fewer fires, we need to prevent ignitions. That should be a much more serious focus."