Forest of Torches: Millions of Drought-Weakened, Beetle-Killed Conifers Are Browning the Sierras and Fueling Fears of Catastrophic Fires

By McLean, Herbert E. | American Forests, May-June 1990 | Go to article overview

Forest of Torches: Millions of Drought-Weakened, Beetle-Killed Conifers Are Browning the Sierras and Fueling Fears of Catastrophic Fires


McLean, Herbert E., American Forests


FOREST OF TORCHES Millions of drought-weakened, beetle-killed conifers are browning the Sierras and fueling fears of catastrophic fires

At 5:30 on a frosty morning last October, I crawled sleepily from my tent at the Silver Fork campground in California's Eldorado National Forest. I glanced skyward, then gazed in awe. The heavens were absolutely, marvelously aglitter.

At our 6,000-foot campsite, no haze filtered the view to set the stars twinkling. No, these were the almost piercing celestial pinpoints that one sees only through the clearest of air. Here in the dead-quiet campground was the timeless magic that the Sierras still share with early risers.

And yet I was concerned, seriously so. Paradoxically, this enchanting sight was also a grim reminder that this range is in a deepening crisis. The Sierras need far fewer clear days and celestial nights. They need rain and snow - huge pours and falls of it over months, years.

Put simply, these beloved mountains, clad in probably the noblest stands of mixed conifers on earth, are in a state of deadly drought.

A year and a half ago, as my wife, Maurine, and I visited the Sonora Pass where we have a cabin, I saw no more than a few dead firs and pines here and there. Then last summer, near Pinecrest on the Stanislaus National Forest, I became concerned as I gazed southward across the Tuolumne River drainage and noted hundreds of dead trees.

"Not to worry," someone told me. "Just beetles."

I'd seen the effects of bark beetles in the Sierras over the better part of six decades. But never anything like this. So Maurine and I decided to find out what is happening.

Last October, with our little Eureka tent, sleeping bags, and chow box stowed in our pickup, we departed the town of Mt. Shasta in northern California and headed southeast into the Sierras. Our trek would take us through six national forests and lead us to entomologists, tree farmers, timber officers, firefighters, Forest Service and California Department of Forestry experts, and forest-products producers.

The beetle-killed trees, we soon found, are symptomatic of a far greater problem for the Sierras: a critical, long-term shortage of precipitation that has no equal in recent history.

That moisture deficit goes back at least a decade at many Sierra locations. It's written with eloquent accuracy in the steadily narrowing outer rings of affected trees that have been felled from one end of the range to the other. That same deficit ties as directly to the disastrous 1987 California firestorms as it does to the chomping, multiplying critters whose work over the past several years has devastated at least four billion board-feet of prime timber (private and federal) in the Sierras. That's enough timber to build more than 300,000 three-bedroom homes.

DEATH ROBES

Bark beetles are hardly new to the Sierras. So we weren't particularly surprised, driving toward Lassen National Park, to spot a few yellowing pines and firs standing stiff and brittle in their rusty robes of death.

That afternoon on the 1.2-million-acre Lassen National Forest headquartered in Susanville, Timber Management Officer Bill Holland hit us with some shocks.

"Our forests are under tremendous stress," Bill said. "We've got a 75-to 100-million-board-foot infestation problem here on the Lassen - ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, red and white fir, Douglas-fir, incense cedar."

He added that last year 20 million board-feet were harvested from insect salvage - four times the insect-salvage harvest between 1985 and 1988.

"Trees with enough water can usually ward off bugs," he noted. "But our groundwaters are depleted, and when trees run out of water, bugs can kill them."

Properly depressed, we returned to our pickup, not yet grasping that the Lassen was one of the lightest-hit forests in the range.

Next day, after camping at Eagle Lake near Susanville, we meandered over the back roads of the Lassen, Plumas, and Tahoe national forests, visiting offbeat places like Prison Springs, Humbug Valley, Indian Valley, and many others. …

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