Our dead and dying forests

“I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.” — Dr. Suess

We are experiencing a new environment, one defined by change and loss.

Our forests are dying. Visit the oak trees at Burnt Rancheria Campground near the Pacific Crest Trail’s southern terminus. Climb to the high-elevation whitebark pines of the Sierra Nevada. Notice how the vast conifer ocean that we live within for so many miles is rapidly changing. Look closely and you’ll see.

A decade ago, I saw it on my PCT thru-hike. Two decades ago, as a tenderfoot scout, a naturalist had me touch the trees so that I could see what was already happening. When I hiked the Continental Divide and the Colorado trails, I spent my days in places fully changed: vast expanses of brown trees waiting to burn. Communities grappling with change and threat. The problems are occurring in places far beyond the PCT or CDT corridors. They extend north into Canada, east to the Appalachian Trail and throughout much of the world.

Dead and dying trees on forest lands in California, August 2016. The gray trees have been dead longer than the orange trees as they've lost their needles already. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Region 5

Dead and dying trees on forest lands in California, August 2016. The gray trees have been dead longer than the orange trees as they’ve lost their needles already. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Region 5

Ozone from our cars and industries, lingering low to the ground, is one of the most toxic pollutants affecting our forests, especially those along the trail as it curves past Los Angeles and through the Southern Sierra up high on the crest. This pollution causes ozone mottling in which needles drop from the trees.

The goldspotted oak borer, a half-inch-long beetle, has killed our grand old oak trees on the southern end of the PCT. But it’s not only the goldspotted oak borer. There are more than 550 types of bark beetles in North America, and about 15 of those species can kill off large swathes of trees. The principal species include mountain pine beetle, fir engraver beetle, western pine beetle, Jeffrey pine beetle and pine engraver beetle.

Bark beetles have been here all along in quiet balance with the trees. But today, the environment that they live in has changed in their favor. There are fewer deep cold periods to keep beetle populations in check. Pollution, warmer temperatures and an extreme and exceptional drought have stressed our forests, allowing the bark beetles to flourish.

With our changing forests, we’re all in this together. And that message, spread through the people on the frontlines at the U.S. Forest Service, in academia, the firefighting community and others, just became a whole lot more stark.

Experts based in the same Vallejo, Calif., Forest Service office that manages that Pacific Crest Trail fly small planes across California to survey the extent of the damage. The agency estimates that 102 million trees have died across all ownership boundaries in California since 2010. In 2016 alone, 62 million trees died.


Thanks to the U.S. Forest Service for putting together this map for our article.

In 2015, California Gov. Jerry Brown called a state of emergency, saying this was “the worst epidemic of tree mortality” the state has ever seen. More funds flow in, state laws are passed, actions explored. It’s all hands on deck. Gov. Brown issued an executive order and established the Tree Mortality Task Force. The task force was the nexus for the U.S. Forest Service, local governments, public utility providers and other stakeholders to combine efforts and work collaboratively for the greater good.

“These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” said Tom Vilsack, U.S. Department of Agriculture secretary under President Barack Obama in a November 2016 press release.

Public safety is a top priority. State and federal land managers must cope with increasingly massive wildfires that sweep through dead or weakened forests, especially in the urban-wildland interface where so many have recently built homes. Their job is to ensure that roads and other crucial infrastructure remain safe. Recreation sites – trails such as the PCT – are often closed after a fire because of safety concerns.

Aerial detection survey photo taken August 2016. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Region 5

Aerial detection survey photo taken August 2016. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Region 5

You might have had a close call with a falling tree. An oak fell on top of sleeping hikers at Lake Morena not too many years ago. My experiences are scary: I was hit by a very large branch while asleep during a wind storm. Another year, a whole dead tree crashed down not 4 feet from my tent. And in another place, a dead tree fell right across the trail, barely missing my hiking partner while we were southbound on the PCT in the Southern Sierra. I’ve packed up camp and moved after realizing that the burned standing trees around me were wobbly with rotten roots.

The occasional tree falls, or they fall in pockets – hundreds, thousands in one place and in one event. In 2011, a windstorm with gusts up to 180 mph blew down an estimated 400,000 trees in the Sierra Nevada, according to a report by the Inyo National Forest. Last summer, thousands of trees were down across the PCT in a pocket just south of Crater Lake. Further north, PCTA volunteers removed record numbers of trees that had fallen across the trail. When on the trail, use great caution when crossing downed trees as they can be unstable. Be careful when choosing a campsite. Don’t camp below dead or burnt trees, especially in a storm.

The Pacific Crest Trail is faced with many challenges, including our dead and dying forests. My article originally appeared in our PCT magazine, a quarterly benefit that’s mailed to donors. Please consider making a donation and becoming a member today. The trail needs your support.

After a wildfire, the burn area often remains closed as crews repair damage and reduce the hazards to passing hikers, horseback riders and campers. Burned Area Emergency Response teams travel all over the nation to reduce these hazards, cutting trees that may fall across trails or campsites, stabilizing slopes and protecting streams. Stay out until their work is done.

Forest Service Smith River Hotshots Forestry Technician, Shane Blair is part of an army of wildland fire fighters on the front line of our nation’s response. Here is works to clear hazard trees during a fire on Sequoia National Forest, August 23, 2016. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Forest Service Smith River Hotshots Forestry Technician, Shane Blair is part of an army of wildland fire fighters on the front line of our nation’s response. Here he works to clear hazard trees during a fire on Sequoia National Forest, August 23, 2016. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

To most of us, wildfires are easily the most visible sign of this complex problem. Burned trees are simply more quickly noticed than brown needles. Large fires have a damaging effect on the forest. Stands killed by beetles ignite and burn hot and fast, engulfing healthy trees, sanitizing the nutrients and minerals from the soil, and destabilizing the earth. When it rains after a large hot fire, landslides are common.

As lovers of the PCT, we feel the loss along the trail and the impact in our trail towns. Mount Laguna burned by the Chariot fire. San Jacinto and the Mountain fire. The Lake fire on San Gorgonio. Wrightwood and the Blue Cut fire. The Station fire above Los Angeles. The Chimney fire near Walker Pass. And north and north and north.

Some conifer forests will recover, but it depends on the type of fire. Fire is a naturally occurring phenomena and can help rejuvenate and increase diversity in homogenous forests, much like it did in the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fire. But drought-weakened or beetle-killed forests often never recover after a massive and devastating burn, or if they do, without the same richness and diversity — and rarely in our lifetimes. Others will transition to other vegetation: scrub, grassland, hardwoods or nothing: rock and soil. Much is lost.

I moved back to California in 2011, and it essentially didn’t rain for the next five years. Starting in summer 2015, every drive to the mountains was a deeply troubling shock. On the western slope of the Sierra, as you drive toward the trailheads that lead you to the PCT, the drought-killed forests are most extensive. Aerial surveys there by the Forest Service show the bulk of the 102 million dead trees. In the Southern Sierra, the PCT was hit hardest by the 2015-16 tree die-off. Seemingly overnight, we went from deeply stressed forests to vast areas of fully dead trees. It’s brown. They’re gone. Eventually, they’ll burn. I see the problem whether I’m standing at 11,000 feet in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park or at 4,258 feet at the northern terminus in Pasayten Wilderness.

The same people who help the Pacific Crest Trail are on the frontlines of this tree mortality crisis. Volunteers yes, but also planners, managers and program specialists at the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Cal Fire and others. I think they’re heroes. As public servants, they devote careers and lives to some of the things I hold most dear: our natural heritage, wild places and our Pacific Crest Trail.

Pine bark (center) and other beetles found in a dead Ponderosa pine in Sequoia National Forest are displayed on the inner side of a piece of outer bark that Entomologist Beverly Bulaon removed in search for pine bark beetles burrowed in dead coniferson August 24, 2016. As pine bark beetles and their larvae bore through the bark they leave behind frass, a sawdust-like wood debris seen in the lower right. Drought conditions have weakened the tree’s ability to expel the increased number of these boring beetles. Several types of beetles live in these trees during its natural lifecycle; some are beneficial while beetles such as this can kill the tree. Brown needles and downward limbs easily identify these dead pine trees. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

Pine bark (center) and other beetles found in a dead Ponderosa pine in Sequoia National Forest. Drought conditions have weakened the tree’s ability to expel the increased number of these boring beetles. Brown needles and downward limbs easily identify dead pine trees. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

However, resources are stretched thin. Tree deaths in our forests are just so vast. The funding and staffing obstacles are so large. Secretary Vilsack was clear: “Forest Service officials are seriously hampered not only by short-term budgets passed by Congress, but also a broken budget for the Forest Service that sees an increasing amount of resources going to firefighting while less is invested in restoration and forest health.”

A 2015 Forest Service report titled “The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s Non-Fire Work” starts with this: “In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the Forest Service’s annual appropriated budget — this year, for the first time, more than 50 percent of the Forest Service’s annual budget will be dedicated to wildfire. Along with this shift in resources, there has also been a corresponding shift in staff, with a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel. Left unchecked, the share of the budget devoted to fire in 2025 could exceed 67 percent, equating to reductions of nearly $700 million from non-fire programs compared to today’s funding levels. That means that in just 10 years, two out of every three dollars the Forest Service gets from Congress as part of its appropriated budget will be spent on fire programs.”

Unless something changes, that’s money that cannot and will not be spent on restoring forests, recreation programs, public access, and programs like ours to maintain the Pacific Crest Trail.

There is a deeply emotional aspect of seeing our forests disappear. Sadness. Tragedy. The feeling of paradise lost. Many of you—PCTA members—live in trailside communities. You face the burdens of a potential catastrophic fire or the slow death of the trees on your properties and in your communities. Removing a dead ponderosa is expensive as is saving it from pine beetles, through pheromone or spray treatments.

Beetle bore holes on the Sierra National Forest. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Region 5

Beetle bore holes on the Sierra National Forest. Courtesy of U.S. Forest Service, Region 5

Our changing climate affects the Pacific Crest Trail: the heat, the changing rainfall and snowfall patterns, the lack of cold. According to a November report from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, our forests are carbon sinks, meaning they store carbon. They’re also a carbon risk — as they burn they release carbon that further warms the planet. Foresters talk in ways to best adapt to the carbon risk: protecting big trees and forests and preventing conversion to grasslands, shrubs and hardwoods.

Millions of dead trees need to be removed as a part of the highest priority work. They could fall across roads and kill motorists, block firetrucks or start a big burn should they fall on a powerline or should there be an ignition source passing by. Massive effort is being put into thinning dead trees, but the infrastructure to remove those highest priority trees is stretched. Logging mills largely closed long ago; logging trucks and loggers are in shorter supply. The timber industry is ramping up, but it’s just too large a problem. California has mandated that energy companies buy biofuels, and dead trees can be turned to fuel to create electricity to pay for some of their removal.

Our dead and dying forests are caused by climate change, drought, pine bark beetles, ozone mottling, fungi and disease, as well as by years of forest mismanagement. Years of aggressive fire suppression and primitive logging practices have led to dense, fragile stands. Current generations of foresters and land managers are working to reverse decades of outdated forest management practices, writing the reports and creating solutions.

Volunteers learn how to use crosscut sawsto help keep the PCT open during our 2016 Trail Skills College in the Columbia River Gorge. Photo by Gray Feather Photography

Volunteers learn how to use crosscut saws to help keep the PCT open during one of our 2016 Trail Skills Colleges. Skilled volunteers are essential to the PCT. Photo by Gray Feather Photography

What can we do? Go. Get out there. Go now. Go in the future. Hike our long trails today. The forests are still standing. Hike them even once they’ve turned brown or black. Even once they’re different. The Pacific Crest Trail will remain an incredible experience. Walk through a burn area with open views, with a naturalist’s eye toward fire succession and ecosystem recovery. Walk landscapes that are dynamic. Camp in places that have changed. Linger in the islands of healthy forests – they’re still abundant. Appreciate them. Cherish them.

By having a lasting and meaningful relationship with these beautiful and fragile places that surround our Pacific Crest Trail, we become most activated to protect them. Shout out for nature – it needs your voice. Introduce the trail and its needs to family and friends.

Tree mortality is a huge problem, and we all must be a part of the solution.

How you can help

  • Never have a questionable campfire, and always make sure you douse your fire with water and feel it so that you’re sure it’s completely out before you walk away. Commit to checking for fire bans before you head out. Never have a fire in high winds or near dry leaves, duff or grass. Firefighting resources are stretched thin, and our forests are ready to burn.
  • Be cautious with backpacking stoves. Alcohol stoves, commonly made from soda cans, cannot be turned off once lit. They are dangerous and often start fires.
  • Your next car camping trip, buy your firewood locally, or collect it if you’re in an area where it’s allowed. Trees used for firewood often died from disease or pests. Buying locally ensures that you’re not transporting those problems to another region.
  • Look up! There are lots of dead trees around. Assess campsites, lunch spots and bathroom stops for safe spaces and pay attention while hiking or riding your horse.
  • Volunteer – we’re ready to put you to work. Be on the frontlines of the solution. To those of you who already are: thank you.
  • Act for the climate. Act for the trees.

Learn more

Since this is a massive issue, we encourage you to dive deeply into the topic of tree mortality by exploring these resources.

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.