Tree mortality due to drought and beetles in Tuolumne County and up and down the Central Sierra Nevada has slowed in the past year due to 2018-2019 winter that brought 50 inches of precipitation to the Stanislaus and Tuolumne watersheds, timber industry county consultant Mike Albrecht of Sierra Resource Management said Tuesday.
But the number of dead and dying trees that must be removed and thinned from the Stanislaus National Forest and other parts of Tuolumne County are still staggering, Albrecht said.
At the end of 2017 when tree mortality was at its height, it was estimated there were 7,700,000 dead trees in the Stanislaus National Forest and Tuolumne County, Albrecht said. Data came from the Forest Service, and it covered public lands and private lands within Tuolumne County.
Since early 2016, more than 1 million dead and dying trees have been removed by agencies like Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, the investor-owned utility Pacific Gas and Electric, privately-owned companies like Sierra Pacific Industries, other for-profit entities like the Pacific Ultra Power biomass plant outside Chinese Camp and the American Wood Fibers shavings plant on La Grange Road, and nonprofits like the Tree Mortality Aid Program, Albrecht said.
“That’s good,” Albrecht said. “The downside is there are still more than six and a half million dead trees in the forest and in the county.”
Dead trees are spread over 440,000 acres of the county, representing 31 percent of the county’s land base, Albrecht said, citing a May 2017 report on tree mortality in Tuolumne County he and others put together for the state’s Little Hoover Commission, which is billed as California’s independent state oversight agency.
“Almost one third of Tuolumne County’s land area got affected by this tree mortality,” Albrecht said. “In the last year we’ve seen a significant slowdown in the tree die off, and that’s really related to the heavy rains over the last winter.”
Asked to quantify the extent of the tree mortality slowdown, Albrecht said he couldn’t quantify it but he could describe it.
“There have been far fewer trees going from green to brown,” Albrecht said. “Two or three years ago there were acres of these groups of trees dying off, hundreds of acres at a time. Now we see much smaller groups of trees, maybe half a dozen, going from green to brown. These are the same tree mortality factors on a smaller scale. We’re out of the epidemic right now.”
Regardless of how healthy trees are right now, there are still 6.5 million dead trees waiting to burn in the federal forest and elsewhere in Tuolumne County.
“The Stanislaus National Forest is still primed for catastrophic fire if we don’t get the dead trees removed and the green trees thinned out,” Albrecht said. “The whole problem is the forest is overgrown. We have to increase the pace and scale of dead tree removals and live-tree thinning by a factor of 10.”
The goal is to achieve 50 to 100 trees per acre, and right now we’re at 300 to 500 trees per acre in most parts of the forest, Albrecht said. There are spots where there are thousands of trees per acre in some places.
People with the nonprofit Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Cal Fire and the Forest Service have been saying over the past few years that 129 million trees have died in California due to drought and bark beetles since 2010, and 85 percent of those are in the Sierra Nevada.
As of February 2018, that total had increased to 147.6 million dead or dying trees statewide since 2010, Brittany Covich with Sierra Nevada Conservancy communications said Tuesday. An estimated 73 percent of those trees are in 10 Sierra Nevada counties — including Tuolumne and Calaveras counties — designated as high priority by the state’s Forest Management Task Force.
Covich said that an August 2019 update on tree mortality showed 1.6 million dead trees removed statewide, leaving about 146 million dead trees on the landscape. Albrecht stood by his estimate that more than 1 million dead and dying trees have been removed from Tuolumne County public and private lands. Covich said her numbers came Forest Management Task Force Tree Mortality Working Group update.
Fresno, Madera, and Tulare Counties continue to see the highest number of dead trees, Covich said.
Jonathan Groveman, a new media information officer for Forest Service Region 5, offered the same 147 million dead trees total as the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, but he said those numbers were current as of February 2019.
Albrecht emphasized it’s important to note that Tuolumne County has six markets for timber products: two sawmills, SPI in Sonora, SPI in Chinese Camp; two biomass plants UltraPower Chinese Camp, and one at the SPI mill in Sonora; the wood shavings plant on La Grange Road, and a bark plant in Sonora at the SPI mill.
“Without those markets we are not going to be able to manage this forest,” Albrecht said. “If we can’t manage our forests we’re going to continue to have catastrophic wildfires.”
Diana Fredlund and Shandy Bearden, communications staffers with the Stanislaus National Forest, said Tuesday there is still no public disclosure of the final determination of the cause of the most recent large, destructive blaze in the federal forest, the devastating August 2018 Donnell Fire that destroyed the historic main lodge at Dardanelle Resort and scores of other structures.
Meanwhile, organizers of the Tree Mortality Aid Program in Sonora, which raised more than $145,000 in recent years to help remove 300 drought-stricken, beetle-infested dead and dying trees from 56 properties owned by people with limited or fixed incomes, are planning an event to say thanks Friday to donors and contractors who did work for less than half the normal costs for tree removals.
The Tree Mortality Aid Program thank-you event is scheduled at 2 p.m. Friday at the Area 12 Agency on Aging, 19074 Standard Road, east of Sonora.
“The program has completed its mission,” said Amy Falken with Sonora-based Sierra Nonprofit Services. “The last trees were cut down in August or September, in the last two months.”
Tree Mortality Aid Program organizers want to thank donors and tree faller contractors who worked at reduced costs, Falken said. Cash contributed to the program totaled $146,000. Participating contractors worked at rates that reduced the normal cost of removal from $1,000 per tree to an average cost of $463 per tree, Falken said.
Falken said 30 people have been invited and 30 RSVP’d for the Friday event. Expected to attend are representatives for the Sonora Area Foundation, the Kiwanis Club, Area 12 Agency on Aging, Sonora Sunrise Rotary, the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council, the Yosemite Foothills Fire Safe Council, the Lions Club of Sonora, Cal Fire, Sierra Pacific Foundations, Pacific Gas and Electric, Twain Harte Soroptimist, Ace Tree Service, Left Coast Land Clearing, Old Oak Ranch, Sierra Nevada Tree Removal, and Wise Woodworks Inc.