California’s Tree Mortality Task Force- Dealing with 128 Million Dead Trees

Thanks to Mac McConnell for sending this in. You may have seen the posts “128 million dead trees in California” from last December. Here’s a quote:

Though California received record-breaking rains in the winter of 2016-2017, the effects of five consecutive years of severe drought in California, a dramatic rise in bark beetle infestation and rising temperatures have led to historic levels of tree die-off. The Tree Mortality Task Force (TMTF), with support from the Governor’s office and comprised of more than 80 local, state and federal agencies and private utility companies, continues to remove hazardous dead trees. To date, the TMTF members have collectively felled or removed over 860,000 dead trees; this includes over 480,000 dead trees felled or removed by the U.S. Forest Service.
The TMTF members are using a triage approach to this tree mortality crisis, first focusing on public safety by removing dead and dying trees in high hazard areas. To further improve forest health, the U.S Forest Service and CAL FIRE have increased their pace and scale of prescribed fire. The U.S. Forest Service has treated over 55,000 acres and CAL FIRE has completed over 33,000 acres in fuel treatment projects. By combining tree removal with prescribed fire, crews will be able to decrease overly dense stands of trees, reduce greenhouse gases, and protect communities across the state.

“Tree mortality at this magnitude takes on-going cooperation between public, non-profit and private entities,” said Chief Ken Pimlott, CAL FIRE director and California’s state forester. “California’s forests are a critical part of the State’s strategy to address climate change. By working together and using all the resources at our disposal we will be able to make more progress towards our common goal of healthier, more resilient forests that benefit all Californians.”

With record breaking levels of tree die-off, the TMTF has used this event as an opportunity to collaborate on several fronts: from public workshops about reforestation, public outreach in urban and rural areas, and awarding over $21 million in grants aimed to protect watersheds, remove dead trees and restore our forests. The TMTF continues to collaborate on the efficient use of resources to protect public safety and build consensus around long-term management strategies for California’s forest lands.

“The Tree Mortality Task force has provided an essential venue for coordination of response efforts, exchange of ideas, reporting, and accountability for the ongoing statewide response to this incident,” said Supervisor Nathan Magsig of Fresno County. “Leadership from the Governor’s Office, CAL FIRE and Office of Emergency Services has helped to ensure county issues are heard and addressed. Monthly coordination of the 10 most impacted counties has resulted in a more effective use of resources and has allowed counties to share ideas and successes.”

Colorado experienced much tree mortality in the recent past (as did Central Oregon in the 80’s). It’s always interesting to see how different states handle the problem. Perhaps because of the importance/funding of Calfire, there seems to be a strong integrated push at the state and county level. It seems (perhaps related) to be less on the ideological side and more pragmatic than the discussions we often have here. Due to the emergency, they simply seem to have made exceptions to the State Forest Practices Act without much pushback (documented here) (or it’s not obvious from here).

They have a multiagency Tree Mortality Task Force linked here, which has many interesting links including this very cool zoomable map with interesting layers tree mortality viewer (below is a screenshot).

There are a variety of working groups including prescribed fire, insurance, regulations, utilization and so on here. For those interested, the Task Force has a webinar on June 11. As always, I’m particularly interested in the perspective and observations of the Californians here.

13 thoughts on “California’s Tree Mortality Task Force- Dealing with 128 Million Dead Trees”

  1. In response to the focus on dead trees regarding fire risk and the lack of focus on where families have actually lost everything in wildfires, we have submitted a letter to Governor Brown.

    The first portion of the letter is pasted below. You can also download a full copy of it plus our recommendations here:

    Dear Governor Brown,

    We have reviewed your May 10, 2018, Executive Order on forests and fire. We are writing to urge you to develop a response to our increasingly flammable environment by focusing on the factors that led to the loss of so many lives and homes in the 2017 wildfires, not on forests far from our communities most at risk.

    The current focus on dead trees in forests is especially misguided because all of the wildfires most devastating to communities in California had nothing to do with such forests. And while it is reasonable to remove hazard trees immediately adjacent to roads and homes, it makes no sense to spend millions of dollars to treat entire forests while the actual fire threat facing thousands of families occurs very far away from these forests.

    We urge you to break from the conventions that have led to the current crisis and to turn California toward a more rational and effective response to the threat of wildfire. What we have been doing, trying to control the natural environment, is not working.

    While large, wind-driven, high-intensity wildfires and post-fire debris flows are an inevitable part of California, the devastation to our lives and communities is not inevitable. We can choose to reject the predominant view that there is little we can do to stop the destruction to communities caused by wind-driven fires, but it will require a significant change in thinking.

    Part of that change in thinking requires us to realize that the unacceptable loss of nearly 10,000 structures and 45 lives in the 2017 wildfires and the losses caused by the 2018 Montecito debris flow have little to nothing to do with forests or the treatment of wildland habitat. Most of these losses resulted from building flammable homes on flammable terrain, not the condition of the surrounding natural environment.

    The current approach sees nature as the “fuel.” Eliminate the “fuel,” the thinking goes, and we can control the fires. Consequently, millions of dollars are spent clearing habitat and removing dead trees. The focus on fuel has become so powerful that some incorrectly view all of our forests, native shrublands, and even grasslands as “overgrown” tangles ready to ignite, instead of valuable natural resources. As evidenced by the 2017 wildfires, the wildland fuel approach is failing us.

    We must look at the problem from the house outward, rather than from the wildland in. The state must take a larger role in regulating development to prevent local agencies from ignoring known wildfire risks as the city of Santa Rosa ignored with the approval of the Fountaingrove community in the 1990s. And the state should support retrofitting homes with proven safety features that reduce flammability – external sprinklers, ember-resistant vents, fire-resistant roofing and siding – and focus vegetation management in the immediate 100 feet surrounding homes.

    We must address the conditions that are actually causing so many lost lives and homes – wind-driven wildfires and the embers they produce that ignite flammable structures placed in harm’s way. We have provided a list of recommendations below that will help us do so.

    As we incorporate this new way of thinking into our wildfire response, we must also endeavor to implement the changes we seek.

    After the 2007 wildfires in southern California, former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman and others formed the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum. Chief Bowman introduced the Forum during a press conference on February 19, 2008, by dropping a large stack of fire task force documents from previous decades on the podium, documents filled with unrealized recommendations.

    Eight years later, during the May 25, 2016 meeting of the California Fire Service Task Force on Climate Impacts, Chief Bowman distributed the After Action Report for the 1993 Southern California Wildfire Siege. As he did after the 2007 fires, he pointed out that the report’s ninety-five recommendations for improving future responses to major fire incidents were nearly identical to those recommended by the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission after the 2003 wildfires. Again, most of those recommendations remain unrealized.

    We urge you to break with the conventions that have led to the crisis and focus fire risk reduction efforts where it matters most – directly on our homes and communities, not forests far from where most of us live. This will allow us to tailor fire policy to the needs of our families most at risk.

    Please see our full letter with recommendations to you at the link below. Hard copies available upon request.


    Richard Halsey
    California Chaparral Institute

    Kathryn Phillips
    Sierra Club California

    Brian Nowicki
    CA Climate Policy Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

  2. Well, the massive die-off seems to have made thinning projects now unnecessary in most of those impacted stands. It also seems that the opportunity for ‘snag-thinning’ via salvage projects has evaporated. The State of California has always been more proactive to drought-related mortality than the Feds, although there are much more forested acres in National Forests, here.

    I could be wrong but, it appears we are still waiting for a position on the relationship between CASPO and extreme mortality events. I’m not buying the ‘snake oil’ which insists that dead trees are essential to the owl’s very survival. The key is a sustainability to their nesting habitats, and in particular, their ‘nest tree’ system. Bark beetles and wildfires are punching very big holes in their nest rotations.

  3. Richard,
    I’m surprised that counties are working on “forests far from our communities most at risk” in the first place. They probably have enough to do around communities and hazard trees that their funding won’t extend farther.

    Along those lines, (so to speak) I notice the presence and activity of PG&E and its power lines in the Tree Mortality Task Force. Are you counting them in “activities far from communities at risk”? Because there may be a variety of infrastructure (water?) in the forests outside of communities that could benefit from protection in terms of vegetation removal (especially since they may be legally liable).

    Can you name specific activities/projects that are “far from communities at risk”?

    • I don’t know about California counties, but in Oregon it would be easy to make a case that the counties don’t work for the people, they work for the timber industry, so they advocate for logging even if logging increases fire hazard. The counties also identify huge areas as WUI even areas that are miles and miles away from any home or community. This creates problems because it means that limited resources are not targeted to the places that most need treatment, i.e., the home ignition zone.

      Also, I am not sure why powerlines would be a priority for dead tree management. The utilities tend to be risk averse and remove live trees that pose any significant hazard to their powerlines. If the live tree did not pose a hazard when it was alive, it does not become more hazardous to the powerline when it dies.

      • Counties in Oregon advocate most vociferously for active management of federal forests. The Association of Oregon Counties’ Natural Resources Policy Steering Committee “seeks appropriate management policies and policy-making processes for water, public lands, and natural resources, guided by the principles of “Enlibra” (national standards, neighborhood solutions; collaboration, not polarization; reward results, not programs; science for facts, process for priorities; markets before mandates; change a heart, change a nation; recognition of benefits and costs; solutions transcend political boundaries).”

        2nd Law, you also wrote that, “If the live tree did not pose a hazard when it was alive, it does not become more hazardous to the powerline when it dies.”

        I beg to differ. When a tree dies on my property or if it shows signs of disease, if it’s in range of my house, I fell it. I bet you’d do the same if a 150-foot dead or dying Doug-fir was 50 feet from your house.

      • Counties in the Sierra Nevada know that the Forest Service is bound by the Sierra Nevada Framework Plan, and its Amendment. It’s hard to bump up the cut when you don’t cut trees over 29.9″ in diameter. Counties do get money from timber sale receipts, though.

        Also of note is that the power companies look for green trees that have bark beetles, too. I saw where they cut a perfectly green young sugar pine, which had active bug hits all over it. There are also other human improvements which need protection from falling trees.

  4. It seems like it would make sense to harvest those trees and make use of them. It seems like that would be better than letting them catch on fire, polluting the air and adding to the treats of climate change,
    not to mention the threat to lives, property, and the remaining forest. Seems like a simple solution.
    Remember when Cal Fire use to be called the California department of forestry?

    • It’s been a few years now, since many of those trees died. I doubt that anyone would bid on millions of questionable trees. There will be Roadside Hazard Tree Projects, with no timber sale embedded, making those into expensive service contracts. The rest will be temporary snag habitat, until the next inevitable human-caused wildfire comes along. Welcome to the new reality, folks!

    • Bob, there are only a couple of mills in the southern Sierra region that can take ponderosa logs. Last I heard, they were taking all they could cut.

      • I am not surprised at the lack of infrastructure. When federal harvest drop to almost nothing and sales that did sell took sometimes millions to operate only very few mills could survive. These remaining mills had to be modern, fast and highly capitalized.
        My thinking is, if harvest is increased of these dead trees new infrastructure will follow. The could be especially true if all levels of sales were provided.
        (This is a long time concern of mine. Federal timber sales are often so large and expensive that only a few people can participate. A recent Chetco Bar fire salvage sale had only one bidder. If the had been broken it up into 3 smaller sales, more people could of participated.)

  5. And let’s not forget the massive population explosion of all those endangered Woodpeckers with all that habitat 130,000,000,000 new potential houses available and overflowing with an abundant food supply which should be reported on any day now. The fact is nobody has any answer to the new abnormal or on how to bring the past back to whatever they imagine it was.

  6. The March 31, 2018 report of the California Tree Mortality Task Force indicates that to date 1.2 million dead trees have been felled for safety reasons (including power-line protection by PG&E in remote regions). This is about 1% of the total mortality. Other thinning projects, aimed at reducing the density of over-crowded stands in green forests, are preventative and designed to reduced competition for water and nutrients, thus allowing trees to better withstand drought and insects and disease attack. As the prudent gardener thins his seedlings and over-dense crop, so the forester tends his woody crop. The Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity opposition to rational management and their druidic obsession with “old” trees have contributed in large part to the present debacle..

    • Sadly, some people welcome this situation of more dead trees and “larger and more intense wildfires”, claiming it all is perfectly “natural and beneficial”. This slow motion disaster continues to roll on, far from being over with, at this point.


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