In a die-off deemed unprecedented in California’s modern history, U.S. Forest Service officials are reporting that 62 million trees have died this year across state forests, mostly in the southern and central Sierras, bumping total tree mortality to 102 million since the onslaught of the region’s historic drought. The death toll is felt on several levels, officials added, as dead and dying trees provide little soil support against erosion, threaten access and visitor safety, and serve as highly combustible fuel during wildfires.
Last year alone, according to the Forest Service press office, fire management consumed 56 percent of the agency’s budget. “With the increasing size and costs of suppressing wildfires due to climate change and other factors, the very efforts that would protect watersheds and restore forests … are being squeezed out of the budget.”
Though numbers from recent aerial surveys have not been broken down by region, in Los Padres National Forest, pine forests at elevations between 3,000 and 5,000 feet — such as those in the Santa Lucia and Mt. Pinos ranger districts — have been hit hardest, said public affairs officer Andrew Madsen. The drought is also taking its toll on oak trees, he added.
Rangers recently reopened Figueroa Campground after clearing about 300 dead and dying pines dangerously close to roads and facilities. “We’re literally going campground to campground to assess risk,” Madsen said, adding that the felled timber at Figueroa “is bucked up and ready for pickup.” Permits to cut and gather firewood are available at the Santa Lucia Ranger District headquarters. They cost $20 and are good for two cords.