The Sierra hills are alive with the sound of chainsaws attacking dead trees.
Contractors are rushing to finish chopping dead trees before weather stops them. That leaves chainsaws buzzing in a 10-county stretch of hilly terrain from the Kern-Tulare county line northward into the mountains east of Sacramento as trees are felled along roadsides, near homes and in the path of electrical lines.
Local counties, the U.S. Forest Service, Caltrans, Cal Fire, Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are spending millions of dollars to ensure that dead and dying trees don’t lead to traffic obstructions, fires, damaged homes or injuries.
And, while removing dying trees is costing tens of millions of dollars, some see a silver lining in more jobs, increased revenue in the mountain communities and forests with a healthier future.
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Caltrans is spending more than $19 million along highways leading from the Central Valley to local mountains. Contractors are chopping down far more dead and dying trees than was expected earlier this year. An estimate of 60 million dead trees has climbed to 102 million, according to the Forest Service.
In the 10-county, high-hazard area, 423,134 dead or dying trees had been removed as of last week, said Scott McLean, Cal Fire spokesman in Sacramento.
Overall, 51,607 miles of roads and power lines have been inspected and cleared of dead trees where necessary, he said.
We’re seeing mortality probably two to three times more than we originally estimated.
Darold Heikens, Caltrans, chief of the Office of Roadside Management
The western pine beetle has spread through the Sierra during the drought and is killing California pine species at historic rates. The drought has allowed the beetle to bore into trees that normally could have repelled it with their sap.
“Our initial estimates were done in March, and even after we started our projects we’ve had more trees dying behind us as we move through,” said Darold Heikens, Caltrans chief of the Office of Roadside Management in Sacramento. “We’re seeing mortality probably two to three times more than we originally estimated.”
Caltrans contractors are moving from higher elevations to lower elevations to beat the late fall snow, which already has slowed some of the work.
The agency is supplementing emergency funding for tree-cutting projects as more dead and dying trees are discovered by crews.
“When we did a tour along Highway 168 we were amazed at the amount of (dead and dying) vegetation that is still standing even though we removed way over the amount we originally estimated,” Heikens said. “We are working behind the infestation.”
And, the work promises to be long-term.
“We’re about three years into it,” Heikens said. “If it follows the Colorado example (a previous beetle infestation), it will be about 10 to 12 years.”
On Highway 41, Caltrans waited to put contractors in the forest until after the summer.
“We’re kind of just starting to hit our stride because we waited (until) after Labor Day at the request of the community,” he said.
Stop and chop
Work along Highway 41 covers an area from the Yosemite National Park entrance to Coarsegold.
As drivers enter Mariposa County along Highway 41 en route to Yosemite or Oakhurst, they are stopped periodically as contractors chew through trees destined to fall into the roadway.
Within 15 minutes, a few trees are felled and drivers are moving on to their destinations. But while motorists waited, they didn’t see the hive of activity taking place beyond the curve where the flagman stopped them.
The scene is repeated often during the day: A chainsaw whirs until a large tree falls to the highway, then another and another; seconds later, a skidder vehicle lifts the largest pieces from the road; then a skid steer vehicle enters and removes smaller pieces; finally, a group of workers equipped with blowers and rakes sweep away remaining debris.
Fifteen minutes is a minor delay compared with what could happen if a dying 100-foot tree falls across the highway unexpectedly, said Cory Burkarth, a Caltrans spokesman in Fresno.
One tree could shut down the entire area.
Cory Burkarth, Caltrans spokesman
“If we get some adverse weather and a tree comes down and our crews are on the opposite end of the work zone (miles away), that tree could be down for hours,” he said. “It would delay school buses, commuters, injure someone and hurt business … One tree could shut down the entire area.”
On an average day, more than 100 trees are cut down along Highway 41, said Jeff Harris of SCMI, a Sonora-based contractor.
As of Wednesday, he said, the Oakhurst-based contractors had cut down 1,976 marked trees but found another 473 that were unmarked and died since the initial estimate was done, Harris said.
Overall, just over 6,000 are marked to come down, a number that will likely go far higher as the project progresses, he said.
Money grows on dead trees
Even as the forest dies, the logging business is reviving some areas.
In the mountains along Highway 168, the fall usually brings a lull between the busy summer lake recreation season and the winter ski season.
That began to change last year when loggers began to descend on foothill and mountain communities looking for long-term places to live, food, gas and other everyday necessities.
“There are certainly businesses that are seeing a better return with the increase in traffic because of the tree crews,” said Dana Smith, president of Shaver Lake Vacation Rentals.
Overall, business in Shaver Lake was up 30 percent in 2015 from 2014 and this year is keeping pace with last year, he said.
“Normally, this time of year it’s so dead that you could take a nap on the highway,” Smith said. “But the businesses providing day-to-day services are thriving now and (the workers) have made the off-season dip far shallower than it normally would be.”
There are certainly businesses that are seeing a better return with the increase in traffic because of the tree crews.
Dana Smith, Shaver Lake businessman
Another business benefiting from Sierra tree-cutting operations is Rio Bravo biomass plant in Malaga.
The plant’s director of operations, Rick Spurlock, said it was supposed to close earlier this year. But emergency state legislation has funneled money into cutting down dead trees, and he expects the company to have enough funding to remain in business five more years. The trees are chipped in the mountains and delivered to the plant to generate electricity.
The plant also collects debris from agriculture and green waste from local cities, but “just under 50 percent is from tree mortality areas,” Spurlock said.
Environmentalists are critical of biomass because it pollutes, but industry officials say it generates far less pollution than open burning on farms or in the mountains because the plants eliminate about 95 percent of pollutants.
“The reality is there is no alternative,” said Julee Malinowski-Ball, executive director of the California Biomass Energy Alliance. “The state has to use every tool in the toolbox because there isn’t a significant infrastructure to deal with dead trees and you’re not going to build it overnight.”
Several companies operating biomass plants that had expiring contracts to provide electricity to utilities will now stay open, saving hundreds of jobs, she said. Plants in Mendota and Delano, among others, closed in recent years and may not be coming back, she said.
“The good thing is that we secured facilities that were going to go down,” she said, “but we didn’t save anyone who is not operating right now.”
The future forest
A retired Southern California Edison forester from the Shaver Lake area said the forest has a good future once dead trees and overgrowth are removed. The bad news is that it could take 100 years to come back to where it was before the massive die-off.
And the new forest will require different strategies to improve its health, said John Mount, a Meadow Lakes resident and author of the book “Torching Conventional Forestry.”
“There are millions of small pines underneath the dead trees,” he said. “A hundred years from now we can have a very nice forest.”
He said overgrown forests need a future that allows natural burning to keep it healthy.
When he started in the Shaver Lake area in the late 1970s, the forest was healthy, Mount said. In his time as the utility’s forester, he said, it was burned repeatedly and more than 200 million board feet was taken off Southern California Edison lands.
A hundred years from now we can have a very nice forest.
John Mount, retired Southern California Edison forester
But allowing overgrowth on nearby federal lands led to crowding that forced trees to vie for nutrients and water. When the drought occurred, trees could no longer get enough water, which allowed the beetle to infiltrate less healthy trees and then spread. When the infestation occurred, he said, the forest had seven to eight times more trees per acre than a normal healthy forest, and dense undergrowth.
The forest also was less healthy for animals because insects were hidden and sunlight didn’t get through to allow certain plants to grow that are eaten by deer and birds.
“Our surveys showed twice as many species of birds on thin forests than on cluttered ones,” Mount said. “The wildlife component was severely damaged by these overgrown forests.”
Mount is convinced that issues leading to overgrown forests and the bark beetle infestation will result in productive discussions about future forestry practices. In the meantime, most of the dead and dying trees will fall in the forest and rot, leaving nutrients in the ground for future generations of pines.
“When we get past (this) … we will have a break and there will be a lot of thought, and I’m sure we’ll come up with good answers,” Mount said. “The forest wasn’t built in a year and it won’t be wiped out in a year.”