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Some Sierra residents wanted the tree cutting to stop. One community didn’t

Dead trees dominate the view at Cressman’s in Fresno County, about 6 miles west of Shaver Lake.
Dead trees dominate the view at Cressman’s in Fresno County, about 6 miles west of Shaver Lake. mbenjamin@fresnobee.com

Money wasn’t running out in Oakhurst, but patience is a different story.

Commuters and business owners from Madera County’s foothills were getting anxious about a Caltrans tree-cutting project that was causing delays along highways 41 and 49. It concluded Thursday and residents and business owners in the Oakhurst area were relieved.

But it meant about $2 million for tree cutting might not get used.

Meanwhile, at Shaver Lake, funding had run out and residents were worried about the increasing number of dead trees browning along the roadside.

So, Caltrans officials shifted the funding to the Highway 168 project to extend tree-cutting well into the summer.

Tree-cutting delays motorists because the trees fall into the road and must be cleared before motorists can pass. Cory Burkarth, a Caltrans spokesman, said the goal is to clear the road of all debris before motorists can pass so it appears as if no tree-cutting took place.

While the project covered roadsides up to Yosemite on Highways 41 and also along Highway 49, commuters were most irate driving between Oakhurst and Fresno.

There is a lot of traffic, it’s actually bursting right now because it’s the biggest weekend of the year for Yosemite itself.

Rhonda Salisbury, chief executive officer for the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau

“When they moved up on Deadwood (Summit), they were holding them over 30 minutes sometimes but then they moved on from that area and I didn’t hear much,” said Supervisor Tom Wheeler.

After hearing complaints, Wheeler said he spoke with Caltrans and was promised they wouldn’t hold up motorists for more than 20 minutes.

“Most of the people know that it has to be done,” he said. “I don’t think it was as bad as I thought it could have been.”

Contractors are rushing to finish felling dead trees in the Sierra Nevada before winter snows stop them. Local counties from Tulare north toward the mountains east of Sacramento have joined the U.S. Forest Service, Caltrans, Cal Fire, Pacific Gas

Now it appears residents on both sides of the county line are satisfied.

“We were happy they pulled out now because of the time of year,” said Rhonda Salisbury, chief executive officer for the Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau. “There is a lot of traffic, it’s actually bursting right now because it’s the biggest weekend of the year for Yosemite itself.”

But she also praised the work that was done.

“The hills are less brown and it’s safer,” Salisbury said. “It improves the forest and perception when it’s not so brown.”

More than 100 million trees have died in the Sierra because the drought allowed a bark beetle infestation. The dry weather allows the beetle to burrow into the tree unimpeded. The governor has declared a state of emergency in 10 counties, including Fresno, Madera, Tulare and Mariposa.

barkbeetle
The culprit in tree mortality is the tiny bark beetle. MARC BENJAMIN mbenjamin@fresnobee.com

Caltrans is one of several agencies cutting dead trees in the Sierra. Cal Fire, Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, individual counties, the U.S. Forest Service and others are all participating in programs to remove dead or dying trees.

The job for Caltrans is to cut trees within 100 feet of a road’s center line.

The Caltrans project covers 33 miles along Highway 168 in Fresno County. Along Highway 41 tree cutting was occurring in 17 miles of roadway in Madera County and an additional five miles in Mariposa County. The Highway 49 project covered about nine miles.

To me, these guys are my heroes because this is such a safety issue.

Dana Smith, owner of Coldwell Banker Shaver Lake Realty

Despite the wet winter, trees continue to die.

For example, Burkarth said, 15,176 trees were removed in the highways 41 and 49 project, but just 12,760 had been marked earlier in the year.

Along Highway 168, there were 4,472 trees removed, but there are about 21,000 marked.

That means the extra money will be put to good use, Burkarth said.

In Shaver Lake, Dana Smith, owner of Coldwell Banker Shaver Lake Realty, was encouraged to learn about the additional tree-cutting money.

“To me, these guys are my heroes because this is such a safety issue,” he said. “We have a lot of dead trees that could fall on cars and kill someone.”

Since tree cutting started, Smith said, the mountains around Shaver Lake look less like a “tree graveyard.”

“It’s safer, it’s a lot prettier and people even have a view now,” he said. “With all these trees going down we’ve thinned the herd and took care of a swath of land a few hundred feet wide that would otherwise have been a towering inferno.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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