Sierra National Forest hardest hit by tree mortality, now at 129 million statewide

Dead trees line a mountain road in November 2016.
Dead trees line a mountain road in November 2016.

Today, Dec. 11, The U.S.D.A. Forest Service announced that an additional 27 million trees, mostly conifers, died throughout California since Nov. 2016, bringing the total number of trees that have died due to drought and bark beetle infestation to a historic 129 million on 8.9 million acres.

According to the report The Sierra National Forest is home to the most damaged acres, recorded at just over one million acres. It also houses the largest numbers of dead trees at nearly 32 million.

Tulare, Fresno and Madera are the three hardest hit counties.

“The number of dead and dying trees has continued to rise, along with the risks to communities and firefighters if a wildfire breaks out in these areas,” said Randy Moore, Regional Forester of the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region. “It is apparent from our survey flights this year that California’s trees have not yet recovered from the drought, and remain vulnerable to beetle attacks and increased wildfire threat. The Forest Service will continue to focus on mitigating hazard trees and thinning overly dense forests so they are healthier and better able to survive stressors like this in the future.”

As Christmas fast approaches in the mountain area, it begs to ask if this season’s moisture will be of any help. About town, you can hear the buzz of worried citizens asking when the rain will come.

Their worry is rational.

Last season between September and November, 2016 the Mountain Area had a total of 7.29 inches of rain. This year, to date, the amount of rain measured is only 3.32 inches. By the end of December last year, Eastern Madera County had another 7.97 inches. This year, halfway into the month we are under .02 inches.

To date, the Tree Mortality Task Force have collectively felled 860,000 trees, 480,000 were removed by the Forest Service. Of the 480,000 trees felled by the Forest Service 258,787 have been removed from the Sierra National Forest alone.

The dead trees continue to pose a hazard to people and critical infrastructure, mostly centered in the central and southern Sierra Nevada region of the state.

The focus of tree removal has been primarly for immediate threats to public safety in a sort of triage response. It is acknowledged by officials that more work and funding is needed ahead.

“To increase the pace and scale of this important work, we need to fix how fire suppression is funded. Last year fire management alone consumed 56 percent of the Forest Service’s national budget. As fire suppression costs continue to grow as a percentage of the Forest Service’s budget, funding is shrinking for non-fire programs that protect watersheds and restore forests, making them more resilient to wildfire and drought,” said Moore.

To further improve forest health, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and Cal Fire have increased their pace and scale of prescribed burns. The Forest Service has treated more than 55,000 acres and Cal Fire has completed over 33,000 acres in fuel treatment projects. By combining tree removal with prescribed burns, crews will be able to decrease overly dense stands of trees, reduce greenhouse gases, and protect communities across the state.

“Tree mortality at this magnitude takes on-going cooperation between public, non-profit and private entities,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, Cal Fire director and California’s state forester. “California’s forests are a critical part of the state’s strategy to address climate change. By working together and using all the resources at our disposal we will be able to make more progress towards our common goal of healthier, more resilient forests that benefit all Californians.”

Ten of the hardest hit counties, including Madera and Mariposa, are working together under the TMTF to find solutions and share successes.