By Christine Souza
Despite the wet winter and far-above-average Sierra Nevada snowpack, California forests remain at risk from tree mortality, bark beetle infestations and overgrown landscapes, according to presentations at the 2017 California Farm Bureau Federation Leaders Conference.
During the event, foresters and forest landowners discussed all those issues and communicated concerns directly to Randy Moore, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest regional forester, who participated as a guest speaker.
Shaun Crook, a timber operator and president of the Tuolumne County Farm Bureau, emphasized to Moore the need for effective forest management and that it be included in the agency’s updated forest plans, to reverse the damage happening in the national forests. The Forest Service is currently working on forest plans to serve as the land management framework for the Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra national forests, which are expected to serve as blueprints for other forests in the Sierra and across the country.
“As we go forward with the forest plan revisions and the (tree) mortality, we need to be more proactive with the green and timber sale program to start getting the forest back into that state that it was 100 years ago, before we can just let fire do its thing, or we’re going to continue to have the catastrophic fires like the King Fire and the Rim Fire,” said Crook, a contract logger and grazing permittee in the Stanislaus National Forest. “We need a guaranteed harvest level coming off of the national forest because without that, we won’t get this private infrastructure back.”
Scientists say more low-intensity wildfires are needed to clear out overgrown forests to help prevent bigger fires. Deciding where and when to let fires burn is tricky.
Dangerous wildfires made a lot of news across this country last year. But there are scientists who say we need more fires, low-intensity ones that clear out overgrown forests and help prevent the bigger fires. Deciding where and when to let fires burn is tricky, and so the U.S. Forest Service is working on a new approach.
Fires aren’t all bad. Some fires help forests become healthier, but scientists say they’re sorely lacking in California.
Sierra Nevada forests are adapted to low-intensity fires that clear the underbrush and prevent trees from getting too dense. After a century of fire suppression, many forests are overgrown, which can make catastrophic fires worse.
So forest managers are piloting a new policy designed to shift a century-old mentality about fire in the West.
The idea is to let naturally-caused fires burn when they aren’t a threat to homes or people. But actually making those decisions on the ground isn’t easy in a crowded state like California.
There are killing machines on the loose in California and the entire Western region.
They’re found in packs and look for the weak but they’re not the scary predator you’d imagine. In fact, they’re about the size of a rice grain.
They’re called bark beetles.
A June 2016 Cal Fire report stated the ongoing drought in combination with the tiny insects are responsible for killing about 66 million trees in California since 2010. That’s up from 29 million trees in 2015 and 3.3 million in 2014, according to the report.
Pine trees in California forests will die out and give way to brush and chaparral, forestry experts warn, unless agencies undertake what one analyst called a “massive effort” to reduce fuels and replant trees. Otherwise, the conversion to chaparral could further increase risk of wildfires and affect the state’s water supply.
A U.S. Forest Service survey, released in June, revealed that 66 million trees—mostly pine species—have died in the southern Sierra alone, due to bark beetle infestations, drought, wildfire and climate change. One question now, experts say, is what will replace those dead trees.
“We know in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests east of Fresno, the beetles have killed at least 85 percent of the entire pine vegetative type and at least 20 percent of the mixed conifer type, which is pine and fir,” said Steve Brink, California Forestry Association vice president of public resources. “By the end of this summer, essentially 100 percent of the pine type will be dead in the Sierra and Sequoia national forests, and you are going to have a massive conversion to chaparral.”
California has suffered more than 5,000 wildfires this year, and we’ve only reached the beginning of the season. Just last week, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling blazes throughout the state – fires largely fueled by already-dead, dry trees.
But many of those trees aren’t dying of old age. They were killed by one tiny culprit: the bark beetle.
The California legislature has passed legislation that aims, in part, to support existing biomass plants within the state. The bill, SB 859, features an expenditure plan for unallocated cap-and-trade proceeds.