A massive tree die-off in both the Sierra and Sequoia national forests have caused officials to revise a plan meant to save the parks as climate conditions have worsened.
Across the state, about 147 million trees lie standing dead, according to a report by the U.S. Forest Service, with about 1.4 million acres of the destruction concentrated in both national forests.
A drought starting in 2011, combined with mismanagement of the forests by the Forest Service, left trees vulnerable to intense fire hazards and bark beetle infestations, the report said.
Around 2015, “the Sequoia and Sierra National forests began seeing die-offs at an alarming rate,” the report said. “Scientists are monitoring the massive tree die-off in the Sierra Nevada and warn that climate change impacts over the next decade will increase the threat of ongoing mortality in the region.”
The Forest Service is in the process of devising two plans meant to restore the parks to healthy ecosystems. Its current management plan was last updated in 1990, and park officials consider it to be out of date.
Among other flaws, the agency’s policy of suppressing fires within the parks allowed both Sequoia and Sierra forests to become too overgrown, which increased the risk of catastrophic wildfires and beetle infestations, according to the Forest Service’s own report.
The policy, which was in place for around 30 years, threatened the entire ecosystem.
Any updates to the management plan would seek to restore the forest to the condition they were in before the Forest Service allowed them to become overgrown, either through “mechanical trimming” or prescribed burning.
Many communities in Kern County rely on Sequoia National Forest for water, recreation and tourism. Changes to the management of the system could alter the types of activities that are allowed in certain areas.
The Forest Service initially completed draft plans in 2016, but increased tree mortality forced the agency to revise the plan.
It is now taking public comment on the revision to the original plan, which addresses substantial tree deaths that have occurred over the last three years.
Environmental groups have criticized the new plans, saying both the Sequoia and Sierra plans exposes too much of the forests’ wilderness areas to logging operations and are not tied to specific budget amounts.
“The agency has suffered budget cuts almost every year for the last several years,” said Steve Evans, Wild Rivers Director for the California Wilderness Coalition. “The problem of not tying a plan to a budget is that they’re not telling the local members of congress how much money they need.”
For its part, the Forest Service admits that it does not have enough money to complete the forest restoration, and needs to rely on certain logging operations within the park in order to underwrite other rehabilitation efforts.
Without the logging, those efforts would be hampered, the agency wrote in its report.
The agency has scheduled a public workshop for Bakersfield in late August to take input. It hopes to develop the final plan by 2020 for implementation in the near future.