Forestry Friday … Millions of Dead Trees

This story appeared in the May 2015, California Forest Pest Council newsletter. The effects of the drought are manifesting in Southern California forests through massive tree die-off.

Early Aerial Surveys Find Millions of Dead Trees 

TehachapiBugKill

2015 Pine Mortality Near Tehachapi. By J. Moore, USFS.

The US Forest Service, Forest Health Protection conducted special early season aerial surveys of Southern California and the Southern Sierras in April to get a preliminary assessment of forest conditions in some of the most severely drought-impacted areas of the state. The Southern California survey covered more than 4.2 million acres and identified approximately 2 million dead trees over 164,000 acres. It included most of the Cleveland, San Bernardino, Angeles, and Los Padres National Forests as well as Pinnacles National Monument and nearby private lands. Noteworthy finds included a substantial increase in pine mortality on the Descanso Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest as well as a large area of scattered live oak mortality south of the Palomar Ranger District. Increased pine mortality was also observed on the San Jacinto District, and large areas of live oak mortality were observed along the southern extent of the Angeles National Forest. In Los Padres National Forest, expanded severe Jeffrey and pinyon pine mortality was observed, and private lands north of Pinnacles National Monument had extensive areas of Coulter and gray pine mortality, as well as live oak mortality, for a third year in a row.

TehachapiBugKill2

Hardwood Mortality in the Sierra Foothills. By Z. Heath, USFS.

The Southern Sierra survey included more than 4.1 million acres and identified nearly 10½ million dead trees over 835,000 acres. It covered western portions of Stanislaus, Sierra, and Sequoia National Forests and Yosemite and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks as well as the Tehachapi Range and nearby private lands. Mortality in the Southern Sierras was quite severe in many pine species, especially ponderosa and pinyon at lower elevations and to the south, and foothill mortality was often widespread and severe, especially in ponderosa and gray pine. Mortality on the Stanislaus roughly doubled since July 2014 in the areas resurveyed this spring, with severe pockets of ponderosa and other pine mortality seen in the low areas to the south. On the Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, western pine beetle-associated pine mortality was common and severe at lower elevations, with an estimated 5 million trees killed, compared to about 300,000 trees last year in the same area. Southeastern portions of the Sequoia National Forest and wilderness areas further east also had intense pinyon mortality, and on the Tehachapi Range and private lands along the Sierra foothills, extensive areas of pine mortality were common.

39 thoughts on “Forestry Friday … Millions of Dead Trees

    • It is part of the natural cycle in the west. When we have these bad droughts, there is this kind of die-off. It is a combination of drought stress and insects attacking the weakened trees. Unfortunately, in Southern California there is not much infrastructure in place for salvaging the trees and replanting the sites. The forests will have to recover on their own and it will take many years.

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    • The redwoods live in the “fog belt”, which is a very different environment. I haven’t seen much effect on the coast. Inland the State is much drier, that is where the drought is really taking a toll. The farther south the go the worse it is. However, it is also the very old and weak trees that die at time like this. Trees have a natural life cycle, much like people and stress can push them over the edge.

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  1. This is quite apparent in my local mountains in the Los Padres Forest. Large swaths of dead and dying pines. It almost looks like a burn area except the needles are still intact, albeit brown and orange. What we need is rain, rain, rain.

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  2. It just breaks my heart….and I know my family is really sad about this, too. We are all fond of trees. In fact, my older son is outside right now transplanting volunteer oaks on our property, and he’s been propagating Kentucky Coffeetrees and Ohio Buckeyes, among other locally native trees. I wish we could magically transport our excess rain to California.

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    • During the last drought. This happens every time we get into a drought, which is about every twenty years or so. It’s happening now and it will happen again. It’s just the climate we have here in the west.

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  3. Maybe this news will actually help wake more people up to the devastation to come if we continue to ignore the signs. 2015 is going to be an ugly ugly fire season….

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    • I’m dread it to be honest. We have been impacted by huge wide fires the last several years. I hope we get a break this year, but I don’t expect it. Our long term forecast is pointing to a heavy thunderstorm track in the Sierra in July and August. That really isn’t a good thing.

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  4. It is sad. I’m so sorry so many trees are dying so early in the season. We are having some rain now, although there is still a huge 250,000 hectare fire burning nearby. Some changes are drastic and some subtle, but the forest sure seems to be shifting.
    I hope you get some rain!

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    • Yes, there is always hope. Part of the problem is that our forests are overly dense. We just have too many trees competing for resources like water. When a drought strikes the trees weaken and become susceptible to insect attack. It used to be that fire regularly burned in our western states and it kept the forest less dense. Large older tree could easily withstand those low intensity fires. In fact, these forest were adapted to regular fires. But fires have been suppressed by people for the last 100 years and as a result, ingrowth of new brush and trees have made our modern forests very dense. Todays summertime fires completely destroy these forest. We can’t reintroduce fire easily because it’s too risky, but we can thin the forest by mechanically harvesting trees to reduce the density. Some work is being done, but we need to do much more.

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    • Hi Paula, I got a little off on a tangent and never answered your question about climate change, so here goes.

      My opinion is this. Climate change happens with or without humankind. The question is how much do people contribute. My answer is, I have no idea. My career in the natural resource profession has gone on long enough for me to see the politicization of environmental science over and over again. It has created in me an inherent distrust of scientific reports when there are such massive political movements driving the discussion. Peer reviewed science falls by the wayside, and consensus becomes the determiner of truth instead of scientific method. It is impossible to sort out the truth in this scientific/political mosh pit. We would be incredible arrogant to think we have this all figured out. Let’s face it, they can’t accurately predict the weather a week out. I can’t believe they can predict a climate pattern 100 years from now.

      Still you wonder, what can people do. We can manage for climatic changes. For example, in a drying environment we plant more of the native drought tolerant species in our plantings. This is what nature does. Tree and plant species migrate in times of climatic changes. This is nothing new. On forests adapt to the changes. My experience in forestry has taught me that nature is extremely resilient. People often lament that nature is very fragile and I totally disagree. That doesn’t mean that we can treat our habitat with no concern. We are the stewards on this planet and it’s our responsibility to manage to the best of our ability and knowledge. We may differ on what that looks like, but if we all desire a good outcome then we can compromise over the details. “Nature” will be here long after humankind is gone.

      In the long run time will show us what is the right answer. In the 1970’s they predicted that we were entering an Ice Age. Time proved them wrong. I think one of the great injustices of this is the angst that is created in the hearts and minds of people over a global disaster that may simply be a natural cycle. As the saying goes, “What if change is easier than you think.” I’m just a forester, but I have great optimism in nature.

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