Maria Mircheva

The best way to make the world a better place is to improve your own neck of the woods. And that is exactly what Maria Mircheva is doing. She is small in stature, but fierce when it comes to saving the sugar pines that are dying at alarming rates in the Tahoe Basin.

Sugar pines and other white pines have become infected with a non-native, incurable fungus: white pine blister rust. The fungus was accidentally transported to North America around the turn of the 20th Century on shipments of seedlings from Europe. Canadian foresters imported the seedlings in order to replant areas that had been clear cut. Since the early 1900s, blister rust has been spreading south from Canada. Forests in Washington, Idaho, Montana and Oregon — as well as those on the East Coast — have been devastated. Blister rust is now an epidemic in California and the Tahoe Basin.

“They climbed way up the trees to get the unopened cones. I really wanted to do that.” -Maria Mircheva

The sheer size of a mature sugar pine, sometimes more than 200 feet, coupled with its thick and massive branches, have led some botanists to describe the trees as the most majestic species of pine. The tree gets its name from the crystalline resin that forms around the edges of wounds or fire scars. Fluid from a wound of a living sugar pine hardens into white nodules that are said to be sweet. Indians and settlers chewed it like gum.

“I love trees,” says Mircheva, executive director of the Sugar Pine Foundation.

She holds a master’s degree in Environmental Science and Management, with a focus on Conservation Policy from U.C. Santa Barbara. Born in Bulgaria, Mircheva was studying in Germany when her American stepfather introduced her to America and, specifically, to Santa Barbara.

“When I saw the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, I fell in love with it,” she says.

She soon transferred to U.C. Santa Barbara. While working on her graduate degree, Mircheva interned at the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, an environmental exchange program where undergraduates and young professionals can study at two world-famous watersheds: Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada and Lake Baikal in Mongolia and Russia.

Before discovering her passion for forests, Mircheva used her undergraduate degree in business economics as a business consultant in the Silicon Valley. In 2007, South Lake Tahoe became her permanent residence. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College, raises her two children and is considered by many coworkers and volunteers to be the heart of the Sugar Pine Foundation.

The Sugar Pine Foundation is a nonprofit founded in 2005 by John Pickett, a former U.S. Forest Service technician. Pickett created the Foundation to restore the natural regeneration of white pines in the Tahoe region. In 2006, Mircheva volunteered for the field season with Foundation and, when asked what first attracted her to the world’s largest pines species, she admits it was watching how the cones were collected.

“They climbed way up the trees to get the unopened cones. I really wanted to do that,” she says.

Cones are collected from sugar pine and western white pine seed trees that are proven to be resistant to blister rust. In mid-September, when the seeds are ripe and encased in sticky green cones, Mircheva ascends the trees with ropes, harness and safety equipment. At the top of the tree, she shakes or clips the cones off of the limbs.

The Foundation shares 50 percent of the cones collected with the U.S. Forest Service for seed banking purposes. The remaining seeds are sent to Cal-Forest Nursery in Etna to germinate and grow for one year. Then the young seedlings are planted in restoration projects throughout the Tahoe Basin and surrounding areas.

Timber records from the late 1800s estimated that 25 percent of the total tree populations were sugar pines. Due to logging and disease, that number has dwindled to only 5 percent. Since 2008, Sugar Pine Foundation staff and thousands of volunteers have planted more than 95,000 trees. The first tree crop is currently about 6 feet tall. Considering a sugar pine usually lives to be 500 years old and are not considered full-grown until the age of 100, the trees planted today will benefit generations to come.

“I feel like I am making a difference,” says Mircheva.

For more information and future planting dates, visit sugarpinefoundation.org.