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Inside a dying forest, Mountain Area businesses find a modern gold rush

Arbor Works employee Rafael Jurado buys coffee and donuts at Judy’s Donuts of Oakhurst from Judy Kong, left, and Outtary Kong. Judy Kong said loggers, brought in as a result of California’s tree mortality epidemic, have dramatically increased business at her shop. “Every morning they come,” Kong said. “I’m glad they’re here because they work so hard cutting down the trees. It has been great for us here.” The influx of tree cutters has boosted the Mountain Area economy by nearly $500,000 a month.
Arbor Works employee Rafael Jurado buys coffee and donuts at Judy’s Donuts of Oakhurst from Judy Kong, left, and Outtary Kong. Judy Kong said loggers, brought in as a result of California’s tree mortality epidemic, have dramatically increased business at her shop. “Every morning they come,” Kong said. “I’m glad they’re here because they work so hard cutting down the trees. It has been great for us here.” The influx of tree cutters has boosted the Mountain Area economy by nearly $500,000 a month. Sierra Star

For more than a year, the Mountain Area has buzzed with hundreds of loggers brought in to clear out a dying forest left devastated by a continued drought and swarms of bark beetles.

That work is expected to keep tree cutters in the woodlands of Eastern Madera County for at least another three years, maybe longer. And though it’s a morbid transformation of once majestic forest vistas, for many mountain businesses, the tree mortality disaster has turned into a major economic driver - a modern gold rush that’s added nearly $500,000 a month to the Mountain Area economy.

“It’s been a dramatic, game-changing alteration in the business climate of the Oakhurst, Mariposa region,” said Jerry Rankin, manager of Comfort Inn Yosemite Area. “In business, new money is like gold. And this has brought a lot of gold.”

Rankin said loggers, most of them contracted by Pacific Gas and Electric Company, first started arriving at the inn in late 2015. Since then, he said Comfort Inn’s gross income has risen 20% each year as the woodworkers remain lodged long term, even during slower winter seasons.

“If our business went up 7% in a year that would be a darn good year,” Rankin said. “So 20% is just incredible.”

Kathy Thomas, property manager for Sierra Home Rentals, said around 20 of the company’s homes were rented out to contracting crews, mostly in Oakhurst.

“It was definitely an economic boost,” Thomas said. “We were renting out homes that aren’t ever rented out in the winter months. So I think this winter was a strong winter for everyone up here.”

In the tourism industry, mountain winters mean inconsistency, Rankin said, where hotels and related locations are almost guaranteed to lose money.

To try and rectify that, he said for decades businesses, the visitors bureau, and Yosemite National Park’s concessionaire spent millions on advertising to lure more winter guests.

“And it was money wasted,” Rankin said. “Nothing worked. But all of a sudden, Mother Nature did the work for us. Where humans didn’t succeed in increasing business income and visitors, Mother Nature did, in a very sad way by killing millions of trees.”

Last November, aerial surveys indicated there are 102 million dead trees in California, an increase of 36 million since May that year. And despite a stormy winter, officials with the U.S. Forest Service said the trees will continue to die.

Though business owners agree that is worrisome, they said it’s best to take advantage of the opportunity.

Kathy Janzen, co-owner with Paula Henry of Oakhurst clothing store Sierra Mercantile, already has.

When loggers began walking through her doors on Highway 41 last October, Janzen immediately knew she needed to expand her inventory.

“A lot of them were asking for items with high visibility, like reflective coats,” Janzen said. “So we went shopping and we brought in coats and boots. And they were gone in nothing flat. Eight weeks in a row we went shopping to build up the inventory. It was crazy. They just kept coming in, and coming in.”

Sales at her store have increased 50% since that initial rush, Janzen said. Beyond the addition of boots and OSHA-approved reflective coats, she said the improved sales allowed her to expand even further, with Wrangler brand jeans and other clothing items.

“It’s been fantastic, just great,” Janzen said. “This has really helped our business because more local people have also come in, and we’ve been able to change our inventory for them too. It’s been a really amazing thing.”

The benefits of added customers have been felt across Eastern Madera County, with dollars used on everything from health services to auto shops, and at gas stations, restaurants, pharmacies, laundromats, grocery stores, and other retail outlets.

Ana Jasso, manager of Mexican restaurant Mariscos Colima in Oakhurst, said the business averaged about 60 orders a shift before the tree cutters arrived.

“Now we get around 100, some days 120 or more, like double the amount,” Jasso said, adding the business had to hire two new employees to handle increased demand. “It’s really sad why they’re here, but it’s definitely been good for business.”

Eric Fleming, Madera County’s chief administrative officer, estimated tree climbers who work five days a week, and travel home for the weekend, spend $108 a day or $540 a week in the Mountain Area.

“That includes lodging, meals, daily fuel for equipment, vehicles, supplies, incidentals, and so on,” Fleming said.

The total number of loggers in the Mountain Area exceeds 200. The largest employer, PG&E, has brought in between 180-200 through primary contractors Phillips & Jordan of Tennessee, and California based Arbor Works Inc. of Dublin and Mountain Enterprises of Lotus, spokesman Denny Boyles said.

Not including those hired by landowners, or added by several agencies, that means an estimated revenue increase of $468,000 a month.

Due to the enormity of the clean-up effort, not only in Eastern Madera County but surrounding areas like Mariposa, many loggers have also journeyed from states as far away as Maine and Missouri, some with their families as encouraged by contractors that cover relocation costs for a further boost in revenue.

But though increased sales and tax dollars have been appreciated, the effects of a sudden increase in the labor force have sometimes been turbulent.

Thomas said of the 20 rented homes, workers caused around $40,000 in damages.

“When you have guys coming from all sorts of different areas and you’re putting them in a home where they don’t know each other, it can get a little troublesome,” Thomas said.

Thomas said contractors agreed to cover the damages, and most kinks have since been straightened out with their employees. Despite the initial difficulties, Thomas added Sierra Home Rentals brought on full-time housekeepers all winter and repairs are being done by area maintenance companies.

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