Ten months after Governor Brown declared an emergency because of the massive tree die-off in the California, the situation has gotten worse.
The latest wave of wildfires adds to worry that many of our forests may disappear in the next few decades. Besides burned trees, millions more are being killed by drought and insects. It’s so bad that loggers and environmentalists have actually found something to agree on.
A sawmill northeast of Sacramento is like most others in the state, it’s got all the business it can handle now.
Mark Luster is with Sierra Pacific, the largest lumber producer in California.
“It really is kind of overwhelming us,” he said.
After years of battles with environmentalists the state’s logging industry had been in a nose dive.
“We’ve seen since the mid-80s, over a 100 sawmills that have actually closed in California,” Luster said.
Only about 25 saw mills are left and suddenly that’s not enough.
“These logs you see unloading are coming off the King Fire. You can see the bark that’s kind of burned on the side there,” Luster said.
The King Fire burned a 100,000 acres in El Dorado County in 2014. Crews are still salvaging wood from that and other big fires around the state. At the same time, sawmills are being inundated with logs from forests hit by drought and a massive bug invasion.
“These tiny little holes are the entry points for the bark beetles,” Luster said.
The beetles are small, but deadly.
“We’re looking at probably around 80 million dead trees in California. We are seeing sections of forest land that overnight basically are turning brown,” Luster said.
Crews are racing to take out infested trees in Sierra Pacific’s Tahoe District, hoping to save what’s left around them.
For most of the trees it’s probably too late. That’s why logging companies and many environmentalists want to focus on thinning forests that are still green, before the bugs arrive.
Ed Smith is with the Nature Conservancy. “The level of activity currently needs to be increased 10 fold to actually increase the health of our forest,” Smith said.
Forests are in trouble because we’ve been putting out naturally occurring fires for decades. Now there are too many trees competing for too little water. That puts them at high risk for beetle attacks and mega-fires that burn hotter and longer than nature intended.
So Smith reluctantly believes it’s time to cut some trees.
“We are not talking about thinning everywhere in the forest, we are talking about thinning in areas that need it the most and that will have the most beneficial impact on the health of our forest.
The cheapest way to thin is to let timber companies do it and sell the wood. That could mean bringing back more sawmills and logging jobs, but it makes environmentalists nervous.
“There are some areas where there are sufficient numbers of medium size trees that could be sold to help pay for thinning activities,” Smith said. “But many places we have removed most, or all of the large trees, so it’s a very sensitive topic.”
However, we pay to restore our forests. Environmental groups and loggers do agree we need to act fast because wildfires and bark beetles are not waiting around.
Both the Nature Conservancy and Sierra Pacific Logging Company support a bill now in congress called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act. It would help assure a steady flow of money to improve forest health.