Barriers to mitigating tree mortality on private, BLM, Forest Service land

Stacks of dead trees felled by a county-contracted tree removal crew line the forest floor. 

Tree mortality continues to plague Calaveras County at an unprecedented rate, even after three consecutive wet winters and thousands of hazardous tree removals countywide.

More than 5,000 dead and dying trees have been removed on private and Forest Service parcels under the Calaveras County Tree Removal Program, which kicked off in late 2017.

Four projects in the Sheep Ranch, Wilseyville, West Point and Murphys areas are currently near completion, and the work will continue in the Blue Lake Springs and Arnold area along the Highway 4 corridor in the coming months. Right-of-entry forms (RoEs) have recently been sent to property owners in Big Trees Village.

“The county and its tree mortality program managers are very appreciative that property owners have permitted this important work to occur on their land,” said Richard Harris, the program’s manager.

Despite seemingly promising numbers, the program has been less than a smooth operation; more than 1,000 homeowners have failed to return RoEs to allow tree removal crews access to their properties.

About 40% of the 2,600-plus RoEs that have been sent out across the county have not been returned, leaving at least 2,000 dead trees threatening county roads and private property, by Harris’ estimation.

Under the program, county-hired contractors are overseen by foresters who ensure that private property protections are being met, Harris said. For owners that have to meet defensible space requirements, tree removal crews must ensure that no debris from operations is left within 100 feet of any habitable dwelling. All logs and debris that can be feasibly removed without “unacceptable environmental damage” are removed by contractors, unless property owners request that logs be left on their properties.

The county encourages owners who receive these forms to return them as soon as possible so that project planning can go forward, and aims to complete the second round of projects over the next year if weather permits. The removals are a free service to landowners.

TSS Consultants was hired by the county in late 2017 to plan and supervise the projects on a $1.5 million budget through October of 2019, County Administrative Officer Al Alt told the Enterprise on May 17. The logging companies contracted for the work include Nate’s Tree Service, Ace Tree Service, Joe’s Logging, Danverse and Sullivan Logging.

With the help of TSS, the county will seek full reimbursement for expenditures on the tree mortality projects from the state Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). He added that the county has opportunities to extend the contract with TSS if need be.

BLM land roadblocks

The program also covers tree removals on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) parcels, but the county has had little success in getting the agency’s approval for much of the work due to a lack of personnel at the BLM Mother Lode field office.

Harris estimated that a few hundred hazardous trees on BLM parcels still need to be removed.

“We really want to get those trees down, especially up in the West Point area; lots of dead trees sandwiched between private parcels (and BLM land),” Harris said.

While state funding is pouring in for wildfire reduction and tree mortality projects on BLM land, the local office is severely understaffed, District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi told the Enterprise Monday.

On an April trip to the bureau’s office in Washington, D.C., Garamendi requested that the agency provide additional staffing to the local office. He also sought reimbursement for $300,000 worth of post-Butte Fire emergency tree removals on BLM land.

“We’ve had good relationships working with local staff,” Garamendi said. “The challenge has been their lack of resources ... Just to get (environmental) surveys signed off they need personnel in their office. One forester can only cover so much ground in one day.”

Under the county’s tree mortality program, the county is responsible for contracting the survey work to comply with local, state and federal standards. Once completed, those surveys are reviewed by BLM staff.

Managing over 230,000 acres of public land across nine counties, the BLM Mother Lode field office review process consists of a field manager and one adviser for each resource (depending on individual project needs) – one archaeologist, one botanist, one forester, one recreation planner, one realty specialist and one wildlife biologist, according to Monte Kawahara, the unit forester for the office.

After surveys are approved by resource specialists and, subsequently, by one fire management officer that is shared between two field offices, the field manager, Elizabeth Meyer-Shields, is in charge of rubber-stamping the action.

The next phase is a public comment period to “allow local residents, organizations and businesses to have a say in the matter if they could be affected by the action,” Kawahara said.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Meyer-Shields said a new hazard removal and vegetation management programmatic environmental assessment (EA) that was released in February may help streamline the process for these kinds of projects.

“The big issue for us is looking at different ways we can streamline the process,” Meyer-Shields said. “The (programmatic EA) will give us some new tools to try to streamline the process some more, and we’re looking at the best way to use those tools right now.”

An ongoing issue

Between 2010 and 2017, the number of dead and dying trees in Calaveras County jumped from 8,000 to nearly 3.3 million, according to data collected by the state tree mortality task force, a collaboration among state and federal agencies, local governments, utilities and various stakeholders.

Even with recent wet winters, tree mortality will remain a pressing issue as long as bark beetle infestations and drought conditions continue, said Brady McElroy, a hazard tree specialist in the Calaveras Ranger District of the Stanislaus National Forest.

“By no means is the issue going away,” McElroy said. “What the Forest Service has to focus on are the high priority areas, the immediate hazards to homes, roads and highways.”

In the long-term, McElroy said the Forest Service hopes to increase the pace and scale of thinning projects to restore overstocked forests that have been allowed for by a century of fire suppression.

“Our forests are overstocked, which increases competition (and) stressors on the trees, (and consequently) their ability to defend against bark beetle,” McElroy said. “The ongoing goal is to thin forests to a healthy kind of pre-European settlement stand to where they’re a little more resilient. We’re focusing on high-priority areas in the wildland-urban interface … We know what happens when these overstocked forests catch fire – we lose them.”

Diana Fredlund, a public affairs officer with the Stanislaus National Forest, said that although federal budget decreases have impacted the scale of the work for the Forest Service, the agency has been able to collaborate with private, county, state and other federal agencies and contractors for tree removal projects.

“We do what we can with what we have,” Fredlund said.

The Forest Service offers its own tree mortality program for homeowners with properties adjacent to Forest Service land. Property owners can fill out a Hazard Tree Evaluation Request Form to be considered for hazard tree abatement.

Forms are available at bit.ly/2Juh2pc or at the Visitor Information Desk in each ranger district.

For more information, call the Calaveras Ranger District at 795-1381.

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Reporter

Davis graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in Environmental Studies. He covers environmental issues, agriculture, fire and local government. Davis spends his free time playing guitar and hiking with his dog, Penny.

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