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Forest of torches: millions of drought-weakened, beetle-killed conifers are browning the Sierras and fueling fears of catastrophic fires.

FOREST OF TORCHES Millions of drought-weakened, beetle-killed conifers are browning the Sierras and fueling fears of catastrophic fires

At 5:30 on a frosty morning last October, I crawled sleepily from my tent at the Silver Fork campground in California's Eldorado National Forest. I glanced skyward, then gazed in awe. The heavens were absolutely, marvelously aglitter.

At our 6,000-foot campsite, no haze filtered the view to set the stars twinkling. No, these were the almost piercing celestial pinpoints that one sees only through the clearest of air. Here in the dead-quiet campground was the timeless magic that the Sierras still share with early risers.

And yet I was concerned, seriously so. Paradoxically, this enchanting sight was also a grim reminder that this range is in a deepening crisis. The Sierras need far fewer clear days and celestial nights. They need rain and snow - huge pours and falls of it over months, years.

Put simply, these beloved mountains, clad in probably the noblest stands of mixed conifers on earth, are in a state of deadly drought.

A year and a half ago, as my wife, Maurine, and I visited the Sonora Pass where we have a cabin, I saw no more than a few dead firs and pines here and there. Then last summer, near Pinecrest on the Stanislaus National Forest, I became concerned as I gazed southward across the Tuolumne River drainage and noted hundreds of dead trees.

"Not to worry," someone told me. "Just beetles."

I'd seen the effects of bark beetles in the Sierras over the better part of six decades. But never anything like this. So Maurine and I decided to find out what is happening.

Last October, with our little Eureka tent, sleeping bags, and chow box stowed in our pickup, we departed the town of Mt. Shasta in northern California and headed southeast into the Sierras. Our trek would take us through six national forests and lead us to entomologists, tree farmers, timber officers, firefighters, Forest Service and California Department of Forestry experts, and forest-products producers.

The beetle-killed trees, we soon found, are symptomatic of a far greater problem for the Sierras: a critical, long-term shortage of precipitation that has no equal in recent history.

That moisture deficit goes back at least a decade at many Sierra locations. It's written with eloquent accuracy in the steadily narrowing outer rings of affected trees that have been felled from one end of the range to the other. That same deficit ties as directly to the disastrous 1987 California firestorms as it does to the chomping, multiplying critters whose work over the past several years has devastated at least four billion board-feet of prime timber (private and federal) in the Sierras. That's enough timber to build more than 300,000 three-bedroom homes.


Bark beetles are hardly new to the Sierras. So we weren't particularly surprised, driving toward Lassen National Park, to spot a few yellowing pines and firs standing stiff and brittle in their rusty robes of death.

That afternoon on the 1.2-million-acre Lassen National Forest headquartered in Susanville, Timber Management Officer Bill Holland hit us with some shocks.

"Our forests are under tremendous stress," Bill said. "We've got a 75-to 100-million-board-foot infestation problem here on the Lassen - ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, red and white fir, Douglas-fir, incense cedar."

He added that last year 20 million board-feet were harvested from insect salvage - four times the insect-salvage harvest between 1985 and 1988.

"Trees with enough water can usually ward off bugs," he noted. "But our groundwaters are depleted, and when trees run out of water, bugs can kill them."

Properly depressed, we returned to our pickup, not yet grasping that the Lassen was one of the lightest-hit forests in the range.

Next day, after camping at Eagle Lake near Susanville, we meandered over the back roads of the Lassen, Plumas, and Tahoe national forests, visiting offbeat places like Prison Springs, Humbug Valley, Indian Valley, and many others.

The pattern of invasion was fairly uniform: a progressive browning downward from the tops of the firs and pines, and finally the full, brittle robe.

A once-magnificent ponderosa by the road on the west side of Eagle Lake on the Lassen forest seemed to stand out. Perhaps 130 feet tall and deeply scarred by several lightning hits, it glowed brown and dry in the morning sun. The ghost-like monarch still bore a lonely cone or two.


Two days later, Maurine and I drove down to the Buttercup Pantry eatery in Placerville in the Sierra foothills, where a small group of Forest Service and wood-products people had gathered to talk about beetles and salvage - and spotted owls.

"We have to owl it, mark it, and arc it," explained Eldorado Forest Supervisor Jerry Hutchins, talking about the complex, time-consuming preparation of bark-beetle salvage sales. Spotted-owl nesting sites and archaeological sites are on the to-be-spared list.

"We had 30 owlers calling in July," Jerry reported, referring to Forest Service personnel who locate spotted-owl habitat areas. He demonstrated the "who-who-who" call used by the Forest Service people (others carry boom-box tape players) to elicit an owl response that pinpoints the nests - which environmental regulations require as a prerequisite to salvage logging.

"We have more than 1,000 archaeological sites on the Eldorado," lamented Rex Baumback, Forest Service timber-management officer, as he explained that "arc checks" are pre-salvage archaeological investigations to determine the forest areas that must be avoided as loggers salvage the beetle-killed trees.

Alas, a quandary: the Forest Service is faced with the imperative need to salvage the dead trees for marketing - and urgently needed fire control - before they rot in a year or two versus strict new controls to protect the spotted owl, archaeological sites, wild rivers, wilderness areas, and other forest resources.

Jerry explained that his people have developed their "bug salvage" operations as they would have attacked a forest fire: on an emergency, get-the-lead-out basis.

That may explain why the Eldorado leads all Sierra national forests in reaping the grim harvest of bark-beetle kill in this heaviest-hit area, where 143 million boardfeet were salvaged last year alone. That's a sixfold increase for the Eldorado over the previous year, and last summer that bug salvage amounted to nearly 80 percent of all timber harvested on that forest.

Immediately after breakfast, Maurine and I climbed into a Forest Service carry-all with Jerry, Rex, and Forest Service Silviculturist David Bakke for a day-long swing through the Eldorado.

"We have at least a half-billion board-feet of mortality here on the forest," Rex explained as we headed up U.S. Highway 50 toward little Kyburz. Placerville's earlier Gold Rush name, "Dry Diggin's," began to take on new meaning. I wondered about earlier droughts.

"There was the '54-'55 drought, the '76-'77 one, and last winter was our third dry one in a row," Dave noted. But all agreed that this latest go-around was the driest, and by far the most damaging of all.

Late that morning at around 5,000 feet, we climbed into the mountains leading toward the High Sierra, leaving the confined American River highway corridor that had restricted our view. And now we could all see the sweep of the mortality - dead trees all around us on the curving road and thousands of dead trees scattered throughout the south-aspect forests rising across the river.

At 6,500 feet, as we entered Sierra Ski Ranch, huge red firs stood dying, and environmental considerations were having their effect on the salvage process. On the one hand, dead trees along the ski slopes were being removed to protect skiers from falling limbs and tree tops. On the other side of the road, standing dead trees were being left as is - despite their explosive fire potential - because spotted owls were nearby.

Meanwhile, the beetles chomped on.

On the Wright's Lake road high to the north of Highway 50, we came across an area that had been salvage-logged three times during the past year and a half. And at Ice House Reservoir, beetle mortality was occurring in sugar, ponderosa, and Jeffrey pines; red, white, and Douglas-fir; and other species on the beetles' hit list.

"We have a maximum of two years to salvage the fir before it rots, and no more than three years for pine," Jerry noted. "There are just not enough trucks and loaders to do the job."

Late that afternoon we snaked through the twisting streets of Placerville, where Gold Rush scalawags were once hanged on the spot, and then headed for San Francisco in air far different from that morning's.


Toward the southern end of the beetle battle, on the Stanislaus National Forest, I met the Forest Service's chief bug guy, Dr. John Wenz, an entomologist who's the on-the-scene bark-beetle expert for the southern Sierras.

"The mountain pine beetle attacks ponderosa, sugar, and lodgepole pines," he told me. "But the real culprit around here is the western pine beetle, which goes after ponderosa and Coulter pines. Ips pine-engraver beetles have also been a major factor down in this area. The fir engraver is the big culprit for the true firs - white and red.

"Death to the trees comes as the beetles - smaller than a grain of rice - produce a girdling effect as they excavate 'galleries,' distributing the flow of nutrients in the outer cambium sapwood - the xylem. The beetles introduce blue-stain fungi that invade the sapwood and block water-conducting capabilities.

"A good, healthy tree will drown the bugs in its own pitch, producing 'pitch tubes' as a physical deterrent to ward off the attack. But drought-stressed trees just don't have as much pitch, and that's why they're more susceptible," John continued.

So in the southern Sierras you have a major two-year drought in '75 and '77, historic fires in 1987, plus below-normal precipitation for four of the past five years - and John's matter-of-fact prognosis:

"If it doesn't rain adequately, the problem will accelerate. Even with normal precipitation this winter, we'll still have heavy mortality in 1990."

Next morning, on the Sonora Pass road at MiWok Ranger Station, Timber Sale Officer Harold Smith stood dejectedly in a forest of stumps.

"You can't spray every damn tree - you can't get high enough on the trunks. The bugs can fly up to 10 miles on strong upper-air currents. We're using helicopters for salvage - first time in 10 years. Can we get the timber out in time? That's the question."


Near the little settlement of Confidence on the Sonora Pass Highway, Dan Ward, a forester for the California Department of Forestry, climbed toward a clearing on property that belongs to a local realtor. Reaching the clearing, Dan was surrounded by dead ponderosa and sugar pines up to 100 feet tall. He chopped into the bark of one of them to reveal pine turpentine beetles and their larvae.

"We've lost the war - the control of the beetle," he told me. "But we'll win some minor battles on private and Forest Service lands by salvaging the infested trees."

To this end, Dan spends maybe 40 percent of each day talking with private landowners in the Mother Lode foothills and the lower Sierras above. He tells them that well before a beetle-infested tree looks dead, when it's producing pitch tubes to try to expel the critters, the bugs have already done their damage.

"I suggest that people remove the tree and all slash immediately, or fell, buck, and split such trees, lop and scatter the slash to let it dry."

Meanwhile, Dan is working with a Tuolumne County special task force of federal, state, and local people to guide residents toward what owners and officials hope will be productive strategies to cope with the beetles. Upcoming: a probable ordinance requiring that property-development plans include bark-beetle-control measures.

But Dan, who is basically a firefighter, has one overriding concern: the probability of wildfire this coming summer.

"The single largest problem is fire - the torching of the dead trees, the spotting of fires ahead of the main fire line. The dead trees are a potential conduit.

This forester is hardly alone in his concern.

At the Forest Service's regional office in San Francisco, Dick Harrell, fire-management specialist for the Pacific Southwest, explained, "As dead fuel accumulates, the difficulty of fire control increases, your spotting potential goes up, firefighting becomes more hazardous, fuel consumption is more intense. Eventually it's going to rear up and bite you."

He recalled that during the Sierra firestorms of 1987, 1,200 lightning-caused fires started in just two days - and this was before the beetle problem became major.

Today millions of dead trees in the Sierras are, in a manner of speaking, unlighted torches. And given the right combinations of dryness, wind, steep slopes, and lightning starts, the Sierra Nevadas could experience fires of epic proportions this summer.


Like everyone else connected with the crisis, Regional Forester Paul Barker is hoping for a dramatic improvement in the weather, but he takes a bit longer view of things.

"Within 10, 15 years we can anticipate an extremely severe fire loss as the beetle-infested trees rot and fall. Meanwhile, I'm praying for an extremely wet and cold winter to kill the insects and to give the trees a little respite."

Multiply that one winter by five or six sopping, cold winters, I'm thinking. And fervently hoping.

Table : The principal bark beetle culprits in California:
Western pine beetle Ponderosa pine, Coulter pine

Pine engraver beetle (Ips) All pines
Mountain pine beetle Ponderosa, sugar, lodgepole
 and western white pine
Jeffrey pine beetle Jeffrey pine
Douglas-fir beetle Douglas-fir
Fir engraver (Scolytus) White, lowland white (grand fir),
 and California red fir

PHOTO : Mapping timber-salvage strategy, Eldorado Forest Supervisor Jerry Hutchins (left, above) huddles with Timber Officer Rex Baumback and Silviculturist Dave Bakke. In the backwoods of the Eldorado (right), loggers

work long hours salvaging insect-killed trees.

PHOTO : Forest Steve Wiard says a major Lake Tahoe fire could wipe out the basin.

PHOTO : Drought and fire ravaged the Stanislaus two years before beetles created a new tinderbox.
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Title Annotation:includes related information
Author:McLean, Herbert E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:May 1, 1990
Previous Article:How to choose & use brushcutters.
Next Article:Timberlands tomorrow.

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