Tree Mortality and Public Safety

Great News! On October 30th, the Governor declared a State of Emergency relative to Tree Mortality in the Sierra and asked Secretary Vilsack for federal funds to help with mitigation and recovery efforts. Read the details here.

Trees are dying all across the Western United States and Canada because of the drought.  Trees in the Central and Southern Sierra are particularly hard hit.  The lack of water and record high average temperatures have severely stressed all trees, and trees like our oaks, gray pine and cedar are dying as a consequence.  Our ponderosa pines, also stressed by lack of water and high temperatures, are also dying from beetle infestation. If the crown of the tree turns yellow first, it is the Ips beetle that is attacking the tree, if the whole tree dies at once, it is the western pine beetle that killed the tree. (Click on the links for more information on each of these beetles.)

These beetles are always around but typically they die back during cold winters, and we haven’t had many of those lately, so the beetles are thriving.  Healthy pine trees can fight a beetle attack by using pitch to push the beetles out as they burrow in to the bark to eat the cambium.  In a drought however the trees don’t have enough moisture to generate the needed pitch, the beetles win and the tree dies.  We have all noticed that every time we drive down the County’s roads this summer that there are more and more dead trees in the mountains around us and in our communities.  This is a disaster!

I’ve been working since June with Don Florence of the County Office of Emergency Services to make the various state and federal agencies aware of this disaster.  Don, working with CalFIRE and the U.S. Forest Service estimates that in Mariposa County, 54% of our trees are dead and expect that number is likely to be about 70% in the first half of next year.  Having that number of dead trees in our forests poses dangers in at least two ways as these dead, and therefore very dry trees, further exacerbate the likelihood of catastrophic fires.  And those trees that don’t burn up will fall down in the next few years endangering our roads, houses, infrastructure and our kids. 

PG&E is currently working incredibly hard to remove trees that threaten their power lines, which not only assures dependable power, but hopefully also minimizes the number of fires started by dead trees falling on power lines.  But, despite their immense efforts, the trees are dying faster than they can cut them down.

Right now most all of these trees are being left where they fall which can make a bit of a mess of your back yard as can be seen in the picture above taken on a neighbor’s property.

CalFIRE is also working with County Public Works to cut down trees along County roads.

Some of our citizens can afford to have loggers cut down trees on their property and have them hauled to a seaport for shipment to Asia where they will be used to make plywood for concrete forms.  All of the sawmill mills in California are booked for at least 4 years now and the more trees that come down the mountain the less their economic value. And unfortunately, right now, there is no place to store these logs until they might have some value.

I’m doing three different things to help this situation. 

First, I’ve worked with Don Florence to form the Mariposa County Tree Mortality Disaster Mitigation Committee (MCTMDC) so that we can have experts from federal, state and local agencies and knowledgeable citizens together in the same room to discuss the problem and identify possible solutions.  Currently participating are representatives from:  Mariposa County Office of Emergency Services, CalFIRE, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, National Resource Conservation Service, National Park Service, Mariposa County Fire, Mariposa County Resource Conservation District, PG&E, South West Interface Team (SWIFT), Mariposa Fire Safe Council, Sierra Nevada Conservancy as well as seven private citizens and other, occasional attendees from state agencies and members of the public.

Second, working with this Committee, Don and I drafted a Disaster Declaration that the Mariposa County Board of Supervisors approved on September 15th.  I’ve also worked with County supervisors in Madera, Fresno and Tuolumne Counties and their Boards have approved similar Disaster Declarations (click on the Counties above to download a version of their Declarations). Don has similarly worked with his Office of Energy Services counterparts in other counties to gain support and coordinate efforts. Several other counties have similar disaster declarations in progress.  State Senator Berryhill has asked the Governor to declare a State of Emergency based on the information we put together.  I also wrote a Resolution for the California State Democratic Party about the need to address the tree mortality problem.  That resolution was passed at the California Democratic Party Executive Board Meeting in August so Democrats have officially acknowledged the need to address this problem.   That resolution can be helpful in approaching legislators to ask for their support.  I’m also developing a similar resolution for approval by a Republican Central Committee.  The tree mortality issue affects all residents of the Sierra; it’s not a Republican or Democratic problem.

The county Disaster Declarations have gone to the Governor’s office and I have been in fairly constant contact with a representative of the Governor’s office, Debby Franco, the Rural Communities Liaison from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.  I have talked with Debby several times in the last 6 weeks and we are currently planning a meeting in Sacramento on October 26th to bring together the various federal, state and local agencies that can help us solve this problem, hopefully with expertise, equipment, interagency cooperation and funding.

Third, I continue to support the Mariposa Biomass Project as, when completed, such a facility will provide a way to derive economic value from our dead and down wood by generating clean green electricity from that wood, rather than letting it rot in the forest or burn, perhaps taking our community with it.  In the short term, before the biomass project is operational, we’re working with County staff and CalFIRE to establish a log deck where the "bug kill" logs can be safely stored until they can be used.

The tree mortality problem is a disaster right now and has probably already affected our property values and certainly affects our safety.  If we don’t deal with this problem, it will only get worse.  I am doing everything I can to not only mobilize local resources, but to also get state and federal resources to help us save our community.

You can help by --
(1) thanking our fire fighters for keeping us safe this fire season;
(2) supporting efforts to keep CalFire stations open after the official fire season is over, because it will really not be over until there’s less vegetation in forests and on private property;
(3) clear the space around your house and thin your trees so that those remaining don’t have to fight so hard for the scarce water in the ground;
(4) pray for rain and that the Governor’s office provides resources to help us.