At the March 24th Tulare County Supervisor meeting Kevin Elliot, forest supervisor for Sequoia and Kings National Parks, was invited to speak about the condition of the parks. According to The Fresno Bee, “A massive die-off of pine trees in the southern Sierra Nevada caused by beetles attacking drought-stressed trees is turning forests brown and creating a fire tinderbox.”
Elliot said that the forest service is monitoring the die-off and trying to mitigate the harm done by the four-year drought. A five percent die off a year is normal, he said, but in the last six months the number has increased tenfold, meaning 50% of the pine forest could be dead. The bark beetle has always been around to cull the sick trees.
“Normally, trees produce enough sap to thwart the insects but years of below average rainfall have weakened their natural defenses,” he said.
The beetle’s larvae chews into the wood and eventually kills the tree, according to The Fresno Bee.
“You know there is a problem when, just by driving around, you see the forest turn from green to red, brown and finally grey,” said Elliot.
Emphasizing that the forest service is limited on what it can do because of scarce resources and potential litigation, Elliot outlined their strategy. The forest service hasn’t revised its maintenance plan since 1988. Their long term priorities will be to update this plan with an emphasis on increasing pace and scale of efforts to mitigate climate change.
In a few months, the forest service
will be doing an aerial survey by low-flying plane to scope out the species of trees under duress and amount of damage. In the meantime the service will be asking residents to clear hazardous fuels by their homes.
Supervisor Steve Worthley protested the fact that the forest service spoke of long term goals.
“We are in an emergency right now. You are Tulare County’s largest landowner with 1.1 million acres. What can you do right now,” he asked.
Worthley reminded Elliot of a major fire in Southern California at the beginning of the new millennium. It happened in the San Bernardino Mountains and was referred to as the 2003 Firestorm. It was the second largest fire in California’s history and Worthley was wondering why we couldn’t learn the lessons that fire had to teach and not let history repeat itself.
Elliot asked for the supervisors’ patience until they can access the magnitude of the threat. He explained that we are not alone. This is a threat throughout Northern California to Washington and over to the Rockies.
“This is a problem that affects all the western states and we will need to work with congress,” Elliot said.
“The choir will get louder” he said, but the money allocated by congress is insufficient and will run out fast once the fire season starts.
Worthley acknowledged that the western states were all suffering but, “this is our back yard.”
“I don’t see the government agency treating this like an emergency,” he said “This is a wildfire; it’s just burning a little slower. What is going to have to happen for you to treat it like an emergency.”
Worthley explained that the forest service is only dealing with a few thousand acres around homes and communities while ignoring the other million acres.
Last year’s Rim Fire would look like a Girl Scouts’ marshmallow roast compared to what could happen throughout the Sierra Nevada this summer. During the Rim Fire, the forest service made a priority to save Hetch Hetchy Dam and the Giant Sequoia Grove. Worthley suggested that Elliot use the same premise of saving the Sequoias, when working with Congress to get funding for prevention.
“Sequoias are fire resistant but they won’t be resistant to a holocaust,” he said.
The Sequoia National Monument was created for the express purpose to protect the Giant Sequoias. It is time Congress starts protecting Tulare County’s most precious asset through increased funding, Supervisor Alan Ishida said.
Worthley lamented that Tulare County has no saw mills left to harvest the dying timber. Not only are the dying trees a hazard, but they are marketable timber. The forest service could use the money from the sale of the timber to pay for fire prevention. If a dead tree is not harvested within the year it is useless. Not only is the county losing the income from selling the wood but the huge amount of dead trees will provide an immense source of fuel during a forest fire.
Elliot’s hands are tied when it comes to harvesting the timber. It’s not just the fuel on the ground, but the dying trees still standing. Elliot explained the forest is under an immense amount of stress because it is overcrowded.
But, the logging industry blames the Forest Service for the fact they have not been able to thin out the number of trees. According to The Fresno Bee, a logging supervisor out of Terra Bella said that in the 1850’s there were 20 to 30 trees per acre. Now there are 300 trees per acre. The density also magnifies the impact of the bark beetle on the forest.
With 50 percent of the trees dead, said Supervisor Phil Cox. It is too bad that the Washington, DC officials cannot see it.
“This is a fire incident just waiting to happen. My frustration is that we have to beg for assistance that won’t happen until we have a fire,” he said.
Resources need to be dedicated now for prevention.
“I hope that we are not sitting here next year talking about the fire that happened,” he said.
Coincidently, the board is planning a Washington, DC trip for the week of April 20. Chairman Worthley, Supervisor Ishida, Supervisor Ennis and County Administrative Officer Jean Rousseau will participate.
The supervisors hope to meet with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Devin Nunes, Rep. David Valadao, Senator Barbara Boxer and Senator Dianne Feinstein. Though many topics will be addressed, the dire situation facing the Sequoia National Forest will be tantamount. Elliot will be providing the supervisors with the materials needed to explain to the representatives how serious the situation is in the National Forest and help the delegation secure funding for prevention.