California is experiencing its 5th year of record drought, resulting in unprecedented tree mortality and insect infestations.  In 2014, 3.3 million trees were killed by bark beetle infestation, and more than 29 million died in 2015.  Now, the USDA Forest Service estimates that 66 million trees have died from drought-related insect infestation since 2010.  Despite 2015 being the worst fire season in history, more trees will be lost and more acreage will be affected by disease and insect infestation than by wildfire this year.  In the Southern Sierra Nevada Mountains, home to a large part of the State’s watersheds, nearly 10.5 million trees, covering 835,000 acres, have been lost to insect and disease die off in 2015, in comparison to just 300,000 trees lost in 2014.  Bark beetles are native to California and attack trees under stress.  They are normally found in low numbers, but will on occasion reach epidemic levels in extreme weather conditions. 

Dead and dying trees dramatically increase the risk of large wildfires, and create public safety hazards in Wildland Urban Interfaces, around communities, along roadways, and in our recreational areas.  The bark beetle epidemic is not going to end until California experiences either several consecutive years of normal rainfall, or the beetles run out of trees to attack, and it will take a concerted effort at the local, state, and federal levels to combat it.  The best solution is the removal of infested trees, thinning over-stocked stands of trees, and improving the overall health of California’s forested landscapes and watersheds; goals that RCRC continues to support. 

On October 30, 2015, Governor Brown issued a Proclamation of a State of Emergency regarding tree mortality which prescribes numerous actions for state agencies and local governments to expedite the removal and disposal of dead and dying hazardous trees as a result of bark beetle infestation. 

In response, the Governor’s Office, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), and the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) formed the Tree Mortality Task Force (Task Force).  Comprised of a wide range of stakeholders including RCRC member county Supervisors and staff, the Task Force convenes monthly to implement the directives outlined in the Governor’s Proclamation.  The Task Force formed nine working groups to address various components of the Proclamation, including resource allocation, public outreach, bioenergy utilization, funding assistance, and forest health and resilience.

Additionally, the Governor simultaneously released a letter calling upon United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to partner with California in deploying federal resources to provide relief and assistance to homeowners and communities located adjacent to federal lands.

The 2016-17 State Budget Package provided $11 million to CAL FIRE for tree mortality mitigation activities, $30 million to Cal OES to provide assistance to counties through the California Disaster Assistance Act (CDAA) for tree removal efforts, as well as $5 million from the State Responsibility Area Fund specifically allocated for tree mortality mitigation programs.  RCRC stands ready to partner with the state and federal governments to find solutions to the current catastrophe and to work on proactive solutions for prevention for those forests not yet affected.

Staff: Staci Heaton and Santinia Pasquini