Valley Voices

Howard V. Hendrix: Four Horsemen of the Treepocalypse ravage the Sierra

Stands of dead and dying trees are seen in a valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains from a helicopter tour Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought about by four years of extreme drought in California.
Stands of dead and dying trees are seen in a valley in the Sierra Nevada mountains from a helicopter tour Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2015. Mostly ponderosa and sugar pine trees are dying off in large numbers throughout the Sierra Nevada due to a bark beetle infestation brought about by four years of extreme drought in California. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

In Pine Ridge, we are glad 2015 is over. Summer was all outtakes from “Apocalypse Now.” For two months, the ashes fell onto our house, through slabs of morning light rendered deep orange from passing through the thick smoke of the nearby Rough Fire – the largest California fire of 2015.

Day after day, heavy air-attack fire helicopters churned overhead. Afternoons, we watched pyrocumulus clouds rise from the forests to our southeast like fists of gods punching up from napalm or tactical nuclear weapon strikes.

In fact, no nukes, no napalm, just the Four Horsemen of the Treepocalypse: Unprecedented drought. Unprecedented fire. Unprecedented beetle infestations. Unprecedented tree death. Especially unprecedented here. The Sierra National Forest that borders our homes was once nicknamed the “Asbestos Forest” because – despite a century of fuels accumulation traceable to fire suppression, and a warming and drying climate traceable to several centuries of fossil-fueled industrialization – our area has long been spared the hell of large-scale, high-intensity burns. No more.

With the recent rain and snow, fire season has at last ended. The slower burn of massive tree die-off continues unabated, however, and will destroy far more timber in the southern Sierra than all the fires of the last decade combined. Still more trees in the same condition can be found on adjacent private land in regions like ours – which, according to the aerial survey maps, is arguably the hardest-hit area on the entire western slope of the Sierra.

This may all sound abstract – just numbers and charts – but it’s not abstract to us. Many of our trees that appear green and healthy we know to be in fact “zombie pines – they’re already dead; they just don’t know it yet,” as we say here in Increasingly Pineless Ridge. Every week we see needles and branches go from green to gray to brown on more and more of the ponderosa pines in our neighborhood, as if an army of invisible worms that flies by night has been hard at work. (The most proximate cause of this devastation, the western pine bark beetle, is not invisible. It’s about the size of a grain of rice, but its numbers are legion.)

Trees that someday might have been harvested assets are today hazardous fall and fire liabilities that must be taken down and disposed of as soon as possible – that is, if the landowner can afford to do so. In the Sierra between Tuolumne and Kern counties, we wander between two worlds: one dead (the collapsed timber industry whose few remaining sawmills and markets can by no means absorb the glut of dead hazard trees), the other powerless to be born (small-scale wood-burning co-generation plants, a nonstarter without prompt government funding).

Those of us who have chosen to build our homes among the trees are well aware of how clearly implicated we are in the complex problem of forest management and mismanagement, particularly its fire-suppression component. We may, however, also bring something to the table that those who don’t live here can’t bring. We have been forced to see that climate is to forest as weather is to trees – and to see the forest for the trees, the trees for the forest, in ways others who do not live here have not.

Though its working groups include representatives from the timber industry, environmental organizations, utilities, and government agencies at all levels, the Tree Mortality Task Force (which grew out of Gov. Jerry Brown’s emergency proclamation regarding the die-off) includes no one representing small private landholders from the Southern Sierra region whose trees have also died in unprecedented numbers.

My neighbors generally prefer to be “left alone” when it comes to interacting with government, but I think none of us wants to be “left ... alone” now, amid this unprecedented environmental catastrophe. We didn’t create this disaster by ourselves. We shouldn’t have to bear the entire expense of it by ourselves, either. Especially not without representation.

Shaver Lake resident Howard V. Hendrix, the author of six science-fiction novels, has held jobs ranging from janitor to fish hatchery manager to university professor and administrator.

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