Tuolumne County, just north of Yosemite National Park, is representative of 10 mountain counties in the central and southern Sierra Mountains is facing an extreme wave of bark beetle induced mortality covering both private and National Forest lands.  More than 100 million trees are estimated to have died in Sierra Nevada forest since 2011 due to five years of drought and overstocked stands that weakened trees and made them vulnerable to infestation by bark beetles.  Dead and dying trees threaten homes, roads, power lines, canals and other infrastructure across the region.

image001 (2)As an example of the scale of the effort required to respond to this slow-moving disaster, Tuolumne County responded with one of the most active programs to insure public safety and protect its facilities.   The County tree mortality program was recently awarded a 2017 Achievement Award in the category of risk and emergency management by the National Association of Counties, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C.  The county formed a task force to assess and mitigate the crisis, applied for grants, and is using its reserve funds to mitigate the hazards to its facilities.  It obtained a state of California grant for the removal of dead & dying trees threatening public facilities which pays for 75% of the cost, but leaves the county to fund the remaining 25%.

The county has pledged more than $600,000 from its General Fund reserves to cover its share of the cost.  County officials estimate needing a total of about $12 million over the next three years to remove all the hazardous trees, so 25% of that would deplete the counties $2.3 million in General Fund Reserves. (from the Union Democrat, May 3, 2017)

In addition to the county effort, PG&E has removed thousands of trees from along its power lines and utility corridors, often having to use cranes to remove the trees in sections costing $1,000 to $2,000 per tree.  The state of California had had to mount a similar effort to remove hazard trees along state roads in the County, and owners of private industrial land have salvaged thousands of acres of dying trees using several different permits under the California Forest Practice Act.  Thousands of private homes and facilities in the counties must remove their dead and dying trees at their own expense if the trees do not threaten a power line or county road and have spent thousands of dollars per parcel.

Service clubs including the Lions club of Sonora recognized that elderly citizens on fixed incomes cannot afford the cost of removing hazard trees threatening their homes, and have responded by raising over $100,000 through fundraising and grants.  They developed the Tree Mortality Action Program (TMAP) to qualify, locate, measure, and contract the removal of these hazard trees for senior citizens.  These trees are also often next to houses with limited access and must be removed in sections.

Merchantable logs from salvage operations have been utilized by local mills, although much is blue stained and of low value.  Some of the devalued timber can be chipped for biomass, but the non-merchantable wood must be hauled to disposal sites which have been selected and permitted by the county. -Jerry Jensen, AFRC California Consultant