Many questions few answers at tree mortality meeting in Avery

Nearly 300 people fill the Avery Middle School auditorium Saturday to hear a discussion of the looming problem of tree mortality in the Sierra Nevada.

A panel of experts on Saturday had an audience of hundreds  at Avery Middle School for a meeting on accelerating death of Sierra Nevada trees.

The massive die-off is urgent, said Tim Tate, area manager of Sierra Pacific Industries’ southern forests. He answered a question from the audience by saying, “It’s already mid-August. Winter is three months away and those brown trees are already unstable.”

Tate said that when a large storm hits the western slope of the Sierra with 30-mph winds, dead and weakened trees will tumble.

“This forms a serious health and safety problem,” said Tate. Many homes were built among the conifers to take advantage of the shade and beauty of trees close by, but if they are dead, there is a good chance the trees will fall on the homes.

Concerned residents from the Highway 4 corridor above Murphys filled the auditorium at Avery Middle School when the meeting began at 11 a.m. U.S. Forest Service area manager David Horak presented a slide show about tree mortality resulting from drought and beetle infestation.

Calaveras County District 3 Supervisor Michael Oliveira coordinated the meeting. He asked each member of the panel to discuss the tree mortality problem and their response to it. The panel included representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the California Office of Emergency Services, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., Sierra Pacific Industries, representatives of state and federal legislators and Ebbitts Pass Fire District.

During the question-and-answer session that followed, members of the audience asked the panel specific questions that went beyond the initial presentation.

First to speak was Jon Ellis, owner of Cedar Ridge Subdivision, who wanted to know why efforts are not being made to “get ahead of the problem.”

“We are chasing the infestation but we need to get out in front of it,” he said. Ellis suggested forest managers remove trees around an infested area in the hopes that will prevent the beetles from traveling.

“Why aren’t we logging around the perimeter of the infestation?” he asked.

“I certainly agree with what Mr. Ellis said,” Tate said. “But if a tree is brown, you are too late to save it; if you see exit holes on the bark you are too late.”

Several people voiced concern over neighbors who are not removing trees from their properties. They said that some of the dead trees are close enough and tall enough to fall on their own homes.

“How do we make people do what’s necessary?” asked Rick Ramirez of Dorrington.

Jeff Seidl of Forest Meadow Golf Course said there are dangerous trees around his home and although he is working to remove the dead trees on his property, “there are trees that threaten my house but are not on my property. I can’t do anything about it.”

Cal Fire Tuolumne Calaveras Unit Chief Josh White said there is not a lot his agency can do. Cal Fire representatives can go to homes or contact property owners and present the facts of tree mortality, but they don’t have the authority to force people to remove the trees.

“I’ve spent more than $20,000 since March to remove the dead trees around my place,” said Robyn Slakey, who lives in Sacramento, but has a second home in Dorrington. “And I’ve got six more to go.”

She said she is employed by a school district in the Sacramento area, “And half my district salary will be toward these trees. I’m employed. How many of the people in the room are retired and on a fixed income. How can they afford to do this?”

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