California’s nature morgues added 18 million dead trees in 2018

State and federal forest officials are looking to treat a million acres each year through prescribed burns, mechanical harvesting

Another year, another bad break for trees in California: Some 18 million trees died in 2018, adding to an epidemic of tree mortality that is already the worst in the state’s recorded history.

A total of 147 million trees have died statewide since 2010 due to unprecedented wildfires, drought and bark beetle outbreaks, according to a press release from the U.S. Forest Service. The extremely stressed-out trees were provided some relief in the winter of 2016-17 in the form of drought-busting rains, but drier than normal conditions the following winter slowed their recovery.

Millions of dead trees—mostly conifers—are posing problems on the western side of the Sierra Nevada, where homes, roadways and power lines could be damaged by falling limbs. Multiple local, state and federal agencies have worked together to remove a total 1.5 million dead trees since 2016, “primarily those posing the highest hazards to life and property,” the release stated.

In response to California’s rapidly changing forest ecosystems, state officials are stepping up restoration efforts to promote more resilient forests that pose fewer risks to people, says John Exline, the U.S. Forest Service’s director of ecosystem management for the Pacific Southwest Region.

“It’s about getting out on the landscape and doing treatments that not only reduce wildfire risk,” he said, “but also the risk of insect and disease outbreak, and improve watersheds, wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities—all of that stuff.”

The U.S. Forest Service just set a benchmark by treating a total of 313,000 acres of California forestland last year, including 63,000 acres of prescribed fire; the latter figure is the most since tracking began in 2001. The agency’s goal is to eventually treat 500,000 acres a year.

“Some people say we haven’t been fast enough, but we’ve been ramping up over the last four years,” Exline said. “We’re not going to burn our way to 500,000 acres, and we’re not going to mechanically harvest our way to 500,000 acres. It’s going to be a balance between the two.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration is also aiming to treat about 500,000 acres of state forestland each year. In the wake of the deadliest wildfire season in California’s history, Newsom is calling for a five-year, $1 billion forest management plan and $305 million in spending in the 2019-20 budget to accelerate the removal of thousands of acres of overstocked and tinder-dry trees and underbrush.