Sixteen years after more than half of the Stanislaus National Forest's Groveland Ranger District burned, foresters, timber managers and environmentalists are still arguing over what to do with the land.

Much of the controversy stems from a proposed $6 million reforestation plan that calls for aerial spraying of herbicides, a practice that has not been used on the forest since a helicopter pilot accidentally sprayed chemicals in a creek five years ago.

The Stanislaus Complex Fire of 1987 was the worst in the forest's history. Started by 37 lightning strikes in a summer following two years of drought, the flames burned about 140,000 acres of the 210,000-acre ranger district. Towering pines and fir stands were reduced to burnt snags. One firefighter died, 101 injuries were reported, and more than three dozen structures were destroyed.

The Larson fire was just one of six that eventually combined to make up the giant Stanislaus Complex blaze. By itself, the Larson charred more than 13,000 acres between Grizzly Peak and Pilot Peak, three miles south of Highway 120 on the border of Yosemite National Park.

Sixteen years later, deer brush and bear clover cover the ground. Oaks have resprouted. The only thing missing, said District Ranger John Swanson and Forest Silviculturist John Schmechel, is the conifers.

With the help of shredders, herbicide and prescribed fire, the two men want to restock the acreage.

Stanislaus Forest officials have proposed replanting sugar pines, Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, white fir and knobcone pines where they once grew.

In some spots, trees are returning on their own. But in others, brush has taken over and must be removed before conifers can grow, Swanson and Schmechel said. Otherwise, it could be hundreds of years before Groveland Ranger District resembles its former self.

"Mother Nature is still doing the job for us," Schmechel said. "We're just lending her a hand."