Tree mortality increases due to drought conditions


Anyone who decides to take the back way from Three Rivers to Kings Canyon National Park will witness a scene of dying and dead when they reach the pine belt. That’s because at elevations between about 4,000 and 6,000 feet, the evergreens are succumbing by the thousands to four years of drought in the Sierra Nevada foothills and mountains.

Scarce water isn’t the only factor driving the death of California’s trees. Bark beetles are taking advantage of the stressed, dry trees. Without proper hydration, the trees are unable to produce the sticky resin that is their primary defense against the beetles, which eat away at a tree’s inner bark, leaving it dry and vulnerable to disease and death. 

Bark beetles thrive in dry, warm conditions. Officials say they’ve seen an increase in the number of bark beetles after years of drought and warmer-than-average winters.

The communities of Badger and Pinehurst along the upper reaches of Highway 245 between Dry Creek Drive and Highway 180 are dealing with this massive die-off that is just one lightning strike away from a destructive wildfire.

Community meetings are being scheduled regularly to advise residents how best to protect their properties. Foresters and fire officials are providing their expertise.

According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service, at least 12.5 million trees in California’s national forests have died during the current drought — adding more brittle, dry vegetation to areas already threatened by potentially explosive wildfires.

The count comes from an aerial survey conducted by the Forest Service in April. Using a digital aerial sketch-mapping system, researchers looked at tree health in areas throughout various national forests and parks throughout the state. They found 999,000 acres of dead trees, a figure that they expect will grow as the drought continues into the summer months.

The number of trees dying from beetles or drought-related causes has more than doubled in the past year. And as the dead trees combine with dried grass and shrubs, what once would have remained a low or moderate intensity fire runs the risk of becoming a raging inferno.

In the Cedar Grove area of Kings Canyon National Park, at an elevation of 4,500 to 5,000 feet, a total of 1,126 trees, mostly ponderosa pine and white fir, were recently identified as hazards due to drought and bark beetle mortality. Prior to the campgrounds being opened for the summer, hazard trees were removed.

Landowners, which in this case is the NPS, have a long-established legal duty to inspect for dangerous conditions. If someone is injured or killed by a falling tree, there will most likely be litigation as the plaintiffs try to show that a tree was in a dangerous condition for a long time. 

The National Park Service takes its responsibility of tree safety seriously. Dead or decayed trees in the vicinity of campgrounds and other high-visitation areas are monitored, tagged, and removed.

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