While Spring may mean the grass is green again and wildflowers are in bloom for many trees across the Sierra it looks more like Autumn.
“Anywhere from 50-60% of trees in the Sierra National forest are experiencing mortality at this point.” says Dean Gould with the Sierra National Forest.
Forest Service crews in the Sierra National Forest are busy clearing acre, after acre of land of beetle kill timber in an effort of both fire prevention and also preservation of those trees that are still healthy.
A closer look at affected trees shows clear evidence of the Pine Bark Beetle, holes bored in the tree. Once the beetle is inside, fungus spreads, evident by the blue stained wood often visible on the inside of felled trees.
Gould adds, “It is changing literally day-to-day.”
Even before these needles lose their color the tree is past the point of no return and will rapidly begin to die.
“The dark green is wilderness,” points Gould referencing a multicolored forest service map laid out in front of him, “The lighter tan areas is non-wilderness areas, and you can see the colored polygons, what those indicate are those are the project areas that we have.”
But the areas the crews are actively felling trees are just portions of an increasingly unhealthy forest, the true scope of which can only be captured from above.
KSEE 24 was invited by PG&E to accompany them on a site survey in one of the company’s fleet of helicopters.
“When you see them in these widespread areas I think it just kind of increases the awareness of the importance of the patrols that we do.” says Denny Boyles with PG&E.
The electric company has much invested in the health of these forests, with hydroelectric plants gathering electricity below many of the range’s reservoirs.
“On a normal year we would touch or inspect two million trees,” ads Boyles, “That number has gone up drastically the past couple years.”
Additionally, miles of power lines from these electric plants that deliver energy to users across the state.
“In some cases we were flying over power lines and you can see how the tree mortality is creeping toward those power lines.”
Tree mortality is a word used a lot when talking about widespread death of trees, the higher the percentage of trees on an acre of land that show signs of dying the higher the rate of mortality, and falling trees can pose big problems to nearby power lines.
The higher in the Sierra Nevada we go, we find the more visibly healthy forests.
“As you go up the mountains you get more precipitation and you get different ecosystems that can live in those different bands,” explains Matthew Meadows, a hydrographer with PG&E who also accompanied us on the flight, “So at the low end of each of those ecosystems you are more susceptible to disease, and nutrient or water limitations.”
These higher elevation forests blanketed in snowfall are much more capable of fending off the attacks of Pine Bark Beetles. While warmer temperatures and years of drought have lower elevations trees facing the greatest risk.
Meadows continues, “Bark beetles in general are a secondary killer the main problem is a water limitation, the trees have had a severe drought for four years and they were weak, and then are being killed by secondary killers and there’s a large mortality in that region.”
And this is a major cause for concern, the most highly traveled areas of the Sierra coincide with the acres of forest with the thickest stand of dead and dying timber.
Here at the Dinkie Creek Campground the landscape has starkly changed, and officials in charge of managing these public areas know the danger.
“Look up down all around, camping directly underneath a tree may not be well advised.” says Dean Gould.
Officials say there is simply no way to save every tree, but a multi-agency effort including in part the forest service and PG&E has resulted in strides forward in managing this increasingly dire situation.
“We’ve just come together magnificently to address this issue collaboratively.” admits Gould, encouraged by the significant efforts.
The Sierra National Forest hopes to have as many campgrounds open as possible by Memorial Day weekend. And as campers arrive, they can expect an unfamiliar scene with so many felled trees.