In the last year, 27 million trees have died across California due to drought and bark beetles, bringing the total number over the last 10 years to an unprecedented 129 million on 8.9 million acres, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“It is apparent from our survey flights this year that California’s trees have not yet recovered from the drought, and remain vulnerable to (bark) beetle attacks and increased wildfire threat,” said Randy Moore, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Southwest region, in a Dec. 11 press release.
Despite a record-breaking water year in 2016-17, the effects of five years of severe drought, increased bark beetle populations and rising temperatures have led to extremely high rates of tree morality. The Tree Mortality Task Force, comprised of local, state, federal agencies and private stakeholders, has worked to remove the hazardous fuels.
To date, over 1 million dead trees have been felled or removed and 88,000 acres have been treated with prescribed fires.
“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 USDA Forest Service’s national budget,” continued Moore. “As fire suppression costs continue to grow as a percentage of the USDA 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.”
In the Tahoe Basin, 168,000 trees died this year on the lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, bringing the total over the last 10 years to 304,000 dead trees on 40,000 acres. That’s up from 72,000 trees in 2016, 35,000 in 2015, and 6,000 in 2014.
“It takes time for trees to regain their vigor. It doesn’t take one banner wet year for the forest to respond to that amount of precipitation,” said Chris Anthony with CALFIRE’s Amador El Dorado Unit. “We will wait and see what this winter brings in terms of precipitation. I don’t even know what normal is anymore when it comes to our environment, the climate and the way our seasons are playing out. We see that in our fire seasons. They are much longer and more destructive.”
Five of this year’s fires across the state ranked in the top 20 most damaging in California dating back to 1932, said Anthony.
“We have a very dense, overstocked forest in the Tahoe Basin, which in addition to drought and climate change make our forest susceptible to diseases, insects and wildland fire,” explained Anthony.
Over the last 10 years, the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, a group of 20 agencies from around the basin, treated 48,000 acres to clear hazardous fuels and improve forest health. The group effort has allowed for a pooling of resources both in terms of manpower and funding.
“We coordinate fuel reduction projects for community protection throughout the Tahoe Basin and by their very nature they have forest resiliency benefits,” said Anthony.
Compared to other national forests in California, the lands governed by the U.S. Forest Service in the Tahoe Basin, which amount to 75 percent of the total acreage, are faring much better.
To the south, Eldorado National Forest has lost 2.6 million trees in the last 10 years. Stanislaus has lost 9 million; Sierra, 31 million; and Sequoia, 20.5 million.
“In Tahoe we have an opportunity to at least get ahead of what we’re seeing in terms of climate adaptation and the way vegetation is responding to that, whereas national forests like Sequoia, Sierra and portions of Stanislaus, they didn’t have time,” said Anthony. “We need to find a way to get ahead of it and manage our forests for future stressors that really aren’t so future anymore.”