Planning on camping and picnicking in the mountains this summer? You may not be able to see the forest for the logs.
The 1-2 punch of drought and bark beetles has devastated California's forests, causing an estimated 129 million (at last count in December) tree fatalities statewide. No area sustained more conifer casualties than the Sierra National Forest, home to nearly 32 million dead trees according to a U.S. Forest Service report.
"This is the epicenter," said Jeanette Williams, ecosystems staff officer for the Sierra National Forest, which encompasses 1.3 million acres of eastern Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties.
Those numbers are staggering and a little difficult to comprehend. The impact is much more acute when you revisit favorite spots and survey the damage. That's when this seismic "event" on our public lands becomes personal.
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It happened to me a couple weeks ago following a hike into the Kaiser Wilderness. Finding myself on the west end of Huntington Lake, I drove toward the dam, pulled over at the Dowville Picnic Area and was completely floored by what I saw. What used to be a stately grove of mixed pine and fir trees, some of them more than 200 feet tall, had been reduced to piles of logs, called log decks, stumps and sawdust.
For 10 minutes, all I could do was stagger around like Jose Ramirez had punched me in the gut.
The scene was similar at several nearby campgrounds. There can be no more graphic illustration how these once-lush forests will never be the same during our lifetimes.
"Has the user experience changed in many of our public-use areas? Absolutely," said Jody Nickerson, the Sierra National Forest recreation officer. "Is it going to be the new normal as far as trees needing to be felled? Yes, at least until we're out of this event."
How long that will be remains anyone's guess. Forest officials are crossing their fingers that the tree mortality doesn't extend to higher elevations and further reaches.
At 7,000 feet, Huntington Lake is one of the latest areas to get hit as tree mortality moves up the western slope of the Sierra Nevada to higher elevations. Trees there began to show a widespread die-off last spring. Lower elevations, where higher temperatures suck water out of the soil and deprive conifers of needed moisture, were the first. Vistas of red- and orange-tipped treetops have been a common sight at 5,000 feet and below since 2015.
For now, the emphasis of the Tree Mortality Task Force, a collaboration of federal and state agencies, county governments, utilities and other stakeholders, is felling dead trees that pose a threat to people, buildings, roadways and power lines while also mitigating the potential impact of wildfires. More than 1.2 million have been cut down statewide, through March 31, including 301,565 in the Sierra National Forest.
Few places have been spared the chainsaw.
Bass Lake (elevation 3,400 feet) was the earliest and among the most affected by tree mortality. Over the past three years crews employed by the forest service and PG&E have removed thousands of dead pine trees from campgrounds and picnic areas and along roads and transmission lines. Many of the logs still sit in the Crane Valley Group Campground, which has been closed for three years.
Pines are the most susceptible conifers to drought and beetle infestation. So many died and have been felled that picnic areas like Pine Slope and Pine Point may need to adopt new names because so few remain standing. And the ones that did survive tend to be smaller specimens.
"The forest around Bass Lake has reverted back to early-1900 conditions," said Michael Price, timber management officer for the Sierra and Sequoia national forests. "It is now back to an oak-dominated vegetation with a few pines whereas before there were so many pines you couldn't see the oaks at all."
The most impacted public-use area might be Blackrock Campground, located east of Balch Camp in the Kings River drainage. Every tree in the small, remote campground died had to come down, Nickerson said.
At the popular Dinkey Creek and Upper Dinkey Creek campgrounds outside Shaver Lake, so many towering, majestic ponderosa and sugar pines were felled that the most common question from alarmed visitors is why the forest service "logged" their favorite spot.
"I have to explain to them about the hazard these dead trees pose," Nickerson said. "Dinkey Creek has some really large trees, and it pained every single one of us to have to fall those hazard trees.
"People have been coming to the campground for years, if not decades. Now they're showing up, see the changed landscape and they're not understanding."
Nickerson emphasized that dead trees are not safe for campers or picnickers because they could topple over at any moment and without warning. That's why they're felled as soon as possible, regardless if they end up laying in log decks for months, or years in some cases, until they can be moved off site.
Even forested areas that have been actively managed, at least to a much greater extent than our national forests, are feeling the effects. A prime example are the 20,000 acres around Shaver Lake owned by Southern California Edison.
In a typical year before the drought, crews would harvest between 3 to 5 million board feet of timber, according to Steve Byrd, SCE's natural resources manager for Shaver Lake. But over the last four, they've pulled out 50 million board feet, all of it dead trees. Byrd estimated the 50 million board feet accounts for "20 to 25 percent" of all the trees in that section of forest.
What happened to that wood? Byrd said most of it was sold to Sierra Forest Products, one of the state's few remaining lumber mills in Terra Bella outside Porterville. The rest, mainly smaller specimens, was exported to China.
Crews were especially proactive removing dead pine and white fir trees from Camp Edison, the largest public-use area on Shaver Lake.
"You can't have recreation and dead trees next to each other" because of safety and liability concerns, Byrd said. "That doesn't work."
The suddenly sparse forests affect visitors in many ways. For example, campers are wise to bring their own canopies to provide shade in places that used to be tree covered. Nickerson, the forest recreation officer, hopes in the future to find funding to buy pergolas and other shade structures.
Foreign as it might sound to camp or picnic among a bunch of stumps and logs, not all of the impacts of tree mortality are negative. Areas along lakes have more water views than they once did, which does have some appeal. And the extensive tree removal has allowed wildflowers and shrubs to flourish thanks to all the sunlight they're getting.
"We're genuinely hoping that people are able to appreciate that and enjoy that aspect of tree mortality," Nickerson said. "But the big thing is the whole process of making these places safe for the public is long and involved. It's not something that happens overnight. It's ongoing."
Prepare to be jarred.