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Massive Pine Tree Die-Off Scares Forest Service, Dead Trees Could Harm Visitors

Nov 3, 2015

The bark beetle has killed so many trees in the Sierra Nevada that officials are worried that people visiting places like the Sierra National Forest are in danger just by being there. Last week Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency when it comes to the dead trees and is asking for federal resources to remove them safely. FM89’s Ezra David Romero reports from the Bass Lake area on what the Forest Service is doing to protect visitors.

The area around Bass Lake Northeast of Fresno in the Sierra National Forest is a popular recreation area. Think boating, camping, hiking and off-road vehicles.

“This is Kamook Staging Area, it’s an OHV staging area for Miami Trails,” says Mark Wilson a fuels technician with the Sierra National Forest.  An Off Highway Vehicles area is a place in the Sierra Nevada where people ride their ATV’s, jeeps and motocross bikes.

Bark beetles burrow into the trees and lay eggs. When the eggs hatch they eat around the tree, killing it.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

But Wilson and I aren’t here to go quadding. We’re here to cut down trees with chainsaws.

The bark beetle has sucked the life out of so many pine trees along this well-used trail that Rangers says it’s become increasingly unsafe for visitors.

“Basically they’re taking them choking them out, starving them out and the trees are starting to fade,” Wilson says. “The top will go red and the next thing you know you have a standing dead tree which is a pretty big hazard.”

This trail is one of about 50 recreation sites near Bass Lake affected by bark beetle damage. Dead trees line the base of the lake all the way to the tip of the peaks nearby.

“From August till now in some sites it’s over 100 trees,” says Leak Pen, a recreation officer with the Forest Service. “It’s growing to the point where it’s faster than we can cut down.”

"We will continue to have this problem even if we get two or three years of regular rainfall because of the amount of bugs that are out there in the woods."
Bark beetles are native to the Sierra Nevada, but drought and warming temperatures are causing them to thrive.
Credit Ezra David Romero / Valley Public Radio

The bark beetles are native to the Sierra Nevada but have flourished because the lack of rain and warming temperatures. The beetles burrow into the trees and lay eggs. When they hatch the babies eat around the inner layer of bark cutting off the flow of sap, killing the tree.  So many trees have died in the Bass Lake area that the Forest Service has submitted a proposal to the US Forest Service Washington Office to chop trees down around popular campsites and trails. They hope to protect the public.

“We do want to keep these places open,” says Pen.  “We haven’t gone to the point where we’ve closed sites because of the problem yet. That’s pretty much our last resort.”

"The only thing we can really do is try to mitigate the hazards that present themselves. A small number of people can actually get out here and make a difference."

Pen hopes crews can work throughout the winter cutting down dead trees. She says by next spring the Bass Lake area may be very bald.

“We’re biting the bullet because we’ve already gone into October,” Pen says. “We’ve only submitted a proposal and we’re looking for support and funding still to try and implement. A limb alone could do extensive damage.”

Forest Service officials say the bark beetle issue won’t be solved by the possible heavy rains brought by El Nino. Dave Smith is a silviculturist – someone who looks after trees – for the Sierra National Forest. He says it’s an epidemic.

“We will continue to have this problem even if we get two or three years of regular rainfall because of the amount of bugs that are out there in the woods,” Smith says.

Smith says 50 to 75 percent of the pine trees below 5,000 feet are already dead or dying. The total cost to remove the trees is unknown but could be in the millions. He says the only problem is they don’t know where the logs will go.

“There are so many dead trees out there and the mills are so far away and they’re already full of materials from the fires that we may just have to pile and burn them and then hopefully come back and be able to plan,” says Smith.

Smith says the Forest Service will sell as much timber as they can to decrease the amount burned. The other option is to stack the dead trees in piles and wait for a solution yet to be created. In the coming years he hopes to reforest the area with pine saplings.  

Back on the trail, Mark Wilson with the Sierra National Forest is overwhelmed by the task ahead. For now there are only a few Forest Service employees on the job.

“The only thing we can really do is try to mitigate the hazards that present themselves,” says Wilson. “A small number of people can actually get out here and make a difference. I mean it’s on a totally different level now.”

For now Wilson and the few others authorized to fell trees will continue to clear recreation areas, but to get the job done and to keep the public safe when campgrounds reopen in the spring an army of chain saw operators is needed.