Imagine a force so brutal and unrelenting that it can kill 100 million giants.
Such was the California drought.
Across the Sierra Nevada, whole hillsides turned from brown to orange to gray as trees of all sizes succumbed to lack of water and infestation by bark beetles. Millions more are expected to die despite last winter’s rain and snow. For those who watched the forests die around them and are now dealing with the aftermath, the emotional and financial costs are enormous.
An escape from LA stress
Mark Anderson bought a house in Bear Valley Springs -- a small, mountain community 125 miles north of Los Angeles -- as an escape from city stress. It sat on a densely-forested lot, so thick with ponderosa pines it was hard to see the house from the road.
He and his partner totally customized the place: floor-to-ceiling fire places, imported granite counter tops, a pond with a waterfall. They took care to design the house around the pines, even notching out the back deck to avoid cutting two of them down.
In 2015, the year Sierra Nevada snowpack reached record lows, and the needles on Anderson’s trees began turning orange and red. He started noticing clouds of tiny, ant-sized beetles on his morning walks.
“They were so heavy that when I walked my dogs, the beetles were attacking us even. Because they were just by the billions,” he said. “And that’s when everything started dying.”
The population of bark beetles in the Sierra Nevada exploded during the drought. Warmer temperatures allowed more of them to survive the winter. The lack of water also weakened trees, enabling the beetles to chew through their bark and girdle them, which limits their ability to transport water and nutrients between leaves and roots. Once beetles build up their numbers, even healthy trees are vulnerable.
Before the outbreak, Anderson had about 300 ponderosa pines on his four-acre property. Today, there are just six pine trees left. His yard is a clear cut.
Once the trees died, he worried about fire risk and that his insurance wouldn’t cover damage to the house from falling dead trees. So he started cutting them down. So far, he’s spent $70,000.
“And there’s nothing to show for it but the trunk of a tree,” he says, laughing sadly.
“So, I bought a chainsaw”
Seventy thousand dollars is on the high end. But spending ten or twenty thousand to remove dead trees is not uncommon for people who live in areas hard hit by the drought and subsequent bark beetle outbreak. Ed and Sharon Weaver, retired teachers who moved to Bear Valley Springs four years ago, couldn’t afford that.
“So I bought a chainsaw,” Ed Weaver said.
He used to work in the timber industry in Idaho and knew how to safely fell trees.
But last summer, he needed surgery, so he had to stop. There are still a handful of dead trees towering over the Weaver’s home. So the couple is now working with the Kern County Fire Department, which received a grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to assist homeowners in cutting down trees that are threatening to fall on houses and roads.
Since 2015, the state agency has spent $43.5 million cutting down approximately 110,000 dead trees, but the need far outweighs the amount of money available.
The Weavers’ also received assistance from their electric utility, Southern California Edison, which cuts down trees that are at risk of fall and damage its power lines.
“With the amount of timber that we’re putting on the ground, you could literally see a line of lumber trucks doing up and down that mountain on a continual basis,” said David Simmons, who heads up the tree removal project for SoCal Edison.
Last year alone, the utility spent about $34 million cutting down trees across the Southern Sierra. Simmons expects to spend about that much every year for the next five years.
Trees are still dying. Why?
What worries Simmons is that the rate of tree mortality doesn’t seem to be slowing down. His crews still identify about 500 dead trees a week.
“That’s about where were were last year,” he said, “I don’t see that dropping.”
U.S. Geological Survey forest ecologist Adrian Das isn’t surprised that after a single wet winter, trees are still dying.
“The trees have been weakened and under a lot of stress and we have these beetle populations that are doing well,” he said.
Das manages long-term research plots in Sequoia National Park, and the outlook there seems to be improving. He says in a healthy forest, about one percent of the trees die in a given year. At the height of the drought, 18 percent of trees were dying in his plots. Now, the death rate has dropped to 8 percent, which sounds great, but as Das notes, “That’s still quadruple the norm, or more.”
Das and other scientists aren’t quite sure what to expect going forward. The recent drought was the worst in 500 years, so they’ve never studied anything like this before. They don’t know how long it will take the forest to recover, if it even will.
Selling his dream house
For Mark Anderson, watching the forest die around him has changed his whole outlook. His home no longer feels like home.
“We’re tired, worn out, and stressed out. It’s not relaxing anymore,” he said on a hot June afternoon as he spray-painted his front gates, part of meticulous preparations for a real estate broker’s open house the following week.
So many trees have died that he feels like there’s nothing left here.
“It’s like when you lose a husband or a wife or a partner, you got to move on eventually,” he said.
So he put his house on the market. A number of his neighbors are doing the same: many houses on Anderson’s winding mountain road in Bear Valley Springs have For Sale signs in their driveways and stumps in their yards. A local realtor estimates about a third of the sellers are getting out because of the tree mortality.
The happy buyer
But Paul Rosenboom sees all of this as an opportunity.
“Every transaction has two sides,” he said. “A disappointed seller and a happy buyer.”
He’s the happy buyer. And he’s Anderson’s new neighbor. He bought an empty lot, sight unseen, and was out surveying it one Saturday afternoon. The dead trees had all just come down, and the land was covered in woodchips and slash.
Rosenboom said he understood why Anderson wanted to get out, but he said personally, he didn’t have the same baggage.
“He would have had a loss, and really, I didn’t,” Rosenboom said, referring to Anderson. “The first time I saw it, it was covered in dead trees. It was the state of affairs, and I’ll just try to improve it,” he said.
As soon as he builds his cabin, he said he’s going to start planting. He’s got a list of native tree species he wants to try: giant sequoia, incense cedar and ponderosa pine.