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Teaming Up To Tackle Tree Mortality Targeting Private Lands

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Sonora, CA — The flywheel is turning for a few multi-agency fueled projects focusing on felling stands of dead and dying trees too large for private owner groups to take on alone.

An initial pilot project at Leisure Pines subdivision in Twain Harte that began in May is now about halfway complete, according to Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services (OES) Coordinator Tracie Riggs. “We are also getting ready to launch a project along old Highway 120…partnering with the Forest Service on that one,” she says with enthusiasm. A third effort, to address three tree-troubled areas in Mi-Wuk Village, will be developed as soon as at least three-quarters of private landowners in those zones fill out, sign and return right-of-entry (ROE) permission forms to her office.

Mother Lode residents need only to take a thoughtful look around their environs to notice that local tree mortality is is on the rise at an alarming rate. This week, Twain Harte resident and reader June Woodard sent us “before” and current photos of pines near the entrance of town taken March 27, before tree removal work there and on June 14, after it completed. “I thought it was an interesting although sad comparison,” she confides. (To view her two images as well as several others Riggs shares of the projects described in this story, click the slideshow link in the left image box.)

Bark Beetle-induced, The Tree Plague Spreads

The telltale spreading of brown trees and pine needle tassels through once all-green stands has the county and local utilities scurrying to fell and remove hazard trees within their jurisdictions that impact public infrastructure as well as buildings within fall zones. Under declared government emergencies, funds are available to help foot the lion’s share of the costs.

“We really need to emphasize the need for the right of entry permits,” Riggs points out. Why, one asks? When projects are put together, such as those pending in Mi-Wuk Village, the county and its partner agencies cannot legally enter private property to render their assistance. “Many people do not like the ‘hold harmless’ language contained within the document but we cannot change the language, as it is required by the State of California Office of Emergency Services (CAL OES) — if we change the language, we lose the funding,” Riggs explains.

It is becoming a hindrance, Riggs notes with frustration. “If we do not have a right of entry permit, we will skip the property and move on to the property in which the owners have signed the ROE permit. This is occurring right now in Leisure Pines — there is one piece of property in the midst of others that have been cleaned up. We really hate to see this happen.”

‘Red Tape’ Among Latest Obstacles

Another item of extreme importance that is turning out to be a challenge, according to Riggs, is the contract between PG&E and Ultrapower Chinese Camp, which must be renewed and approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). “This is not proving to be an easy process,” she admits. “They are currently operating on a three-month extension that ends October 31. If not renewed, the plant will close November 1 and we will not have a place to take the high-hazard zone product.”

Finding financial assistance for private landowners to help abate tree issues on their properties continues to be a bane for Riggs’ office. However, she reports that an application for an up to $4 million Hazard Mitigation grant, due Thursday, was submitted on time.

“We will not know if or how much we are awarded until September,” Riggs states, adding that the monies would enable the county to do work on private property to create defensible space, do fuels reduction and other work with a 25 percent match from the homeowner. “We are working very diligently to try to find a way to help everyone. Unfortunately, none of this happens fast,” she says ruefully.

Leisure Pines A ‘First” In The State

County officials point to the initial pilot project still underway at Leisure Pines — the first of its kind in the state under the tree mortality emergency — as a perfect example of how the county can collaborate and partner with other agencies doing similar work, in this case, PG&E and CAL Fire. “There were hundreds, if not thousands, of logs and wood on the ground,” Riggs recalls.

The work scope includes removing wood from dozens of trees already downed by PG&E as well as taking down remaining trees with any signs of bark beetle infestation. The county’s project contractor, Type One Tree Service, initiated work two weeks before CAL Fire arrived with inmate crews and part of its $6 million cache of new chipping and cleanup equipment purchased specifically for dealing with the tree mortality emergency. The project reflected several months of planning and coordination at state and local levels through the State Tree Mortality Task Force that was assembled under the order of Governor Jerry Brown as part of the response to his formally declared state emergency.

PG&E, which continues to invest tens of millions to take down trees, is currently in the process of contracting with a large, national debris removal company. In the past, the utility left behind the trees its crews cut down, which removed the falling hazard but was not a complete solution. “This will kind of change the game for all of us, so we are excited for this,” Riggs grins. “I think this will allow all of us to move forward in a much different way, although it will take us a little bit to kind of regroup. They…bring in and contract with local companies…so it is not going to take away from anyone but should allow us to more a little bit more broadly and a little bit more quickly.”

State Officials Got An Eyeful

District 2 Supervisor Randy Hanvelt and District 4 Supervisor John Gray are among the task force’s active members. Hanvelt comments, “Leisure Pines was where the [State] Tree Mortality Task Force members could see, firsthand, what all the dead and dying trees pose to private residential landowners…seeing the threat, the incredible expense and all the work that goes into removing trees from residential properties — processing and disposal as well as the chipping and cleanup that follows — to restore the area.”

While an impressive effort, Hanvelt says, matter-of-factly, “In a few months we could have a whole new group of dead trees in that area and people could say that we never got here…dead trees are really ugly – and there are a lot of them up there. This is an ongoing thing.”

Even with all the recent progress, Hanvelt shares, “We are really worried that fire season will slow this thing down…we are working continuously as long as we possibly can…but there are always new wrinkles. We are meeting these as they come up and we are finding solutions. This is the lead team in the state and we are very proud – it is important.” Riggs notes as the season’s wildfires may well draw CAL Fire inmate crews away from currently slated projects, her office is meeting with regional CCC units and hopes to help establish some camps for corps members to stay at while handling chipping and other chores, as projects develop and work scope is designed.

Tackle Hazard Trees Sooner Than Later

For landowners trying to get a handle on hazard tree removals, past strategies to help finance the work by arranging with timber operators for the trees to “pay their way” off the property is harder to achieve these days, according to Riggs. There is limited local salvage value for the “blue-stain” wood that occurs with bark beetle infestation. However, a few private individuals are milling it for siding and cabinets.

Chiming in, Hanvelt states, “These trees have a very short shelf life when they die like this — they are not good for very long — they become a little more than biomass. It is not like a green tree. These trees are very stressed and the way that the bark beetle kills them they have a very short shelf-life commercial value — so that a tree that has been standing dead for a year-and-a-half probably has no value.”

By the way, the county’s wood sort yard, located off Highway 108 in the Hatler Industrial Park next to Ultrapower in Chinese Camp, is open to residents to bring in wood, free of charge. However, Riggs advises, “It won’t take any slash — no pine needles — but if people have wood that they are just carting in their pickup and they want it off their property, they can take it to the sort yard. We have this available and it is not just for us and our projects but also for members of the public who are trying to clean off their own property — it might be by pickup load by pickup load, but they can take it down there. There is someone who receives it, Monday through Fridays, from 7 until 5.”

More Tree Tips, Resources

Tuolumne County also recently set up a tree mortality information line, which Riggs recommends local residents with problem trees on the properties to contact at 533-6394. Manned by members of RACES, the amateur radio group, that provided invaluable volunteer phone assistance during Rim Fire operations, they are briefed with the latest resource information and can answer questions right away. For tougher queries, they will dig for answers or forward folks to the OES main line at 533-5511.

“If you have a tree that you think may be endangering your home, don’t wait for us to get there,” Riggs advises, although she forewarns of a current scarcity of licensed timber operators and registered professional foresters. While there are no substantial funding assistance options yet available for homeowners, she remains hopeful and continues to advocate for it. Meanwhile, as county efforts continue, Riggs suggests landowners to consider collaborating with their neighbors when possible. “We have heard some success stories – where they have…pooled their funds and were able to have a contractor come in and take the most immediate hazards out,” she shares.

In addition to the county’s wood sort yard, referenced earlier in this article, the county has listed three commercial green waste facilities where wood, slash, needles and other debris may be dropped off for a fee. For more details and other resource information and links related to tree mortality from the county website, click here.

The state’s tree mortality troubles are guaranteed to worsen before they get better. Riggs points to a similar situation in Colorado that took a dozen years to contain. In the meantime, Tuolumne County continues to help lead the state in finding collaborative solutions. Hanvelt sums it up with a chuckle, “Stay tuned. More will be happening.”