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Mustering Tree Mortality Aid For Those In Need

Sonora, CA — A homegrown multi-agency effort spearheaded by civic groups soon plans to help fund dead tree removal projects for those who cannot afford to tackle them on their own.

As Tuolumne County, among an increasing number of counties, remains under a pervasive tree mortality emergency due to drought-induced, spreading bug-related infestations, the Sonora Lions Club has impressively stepped up to organize efforts. They are specifically targeting to help fill a daunting, doughnut hole-sized funding gap by providing private property owners without essential means a hand-up in helping remove dangerously close tree hazards that might otherwise destroy their primary residence or threaten their lives.

A centennial project of Sonora Lions Club Tuolumne County, the Tree Mortality Aid Program, which will become better known in the coming months as TMAP, holds as its mission to improve the health and safety of low income seniors and disabled homeowners in Tuolumne County. This collaboration, with public and private partners, will provide resources, support, and assistance in the removal of hazardous, dead and dying trees as a result of catastrophic tree mortality.

Tree Worry Talk Leads To TMAP

Its genesis came straight from the mouth of Lions Club member Glenn Gottschall, president of the Highway 108 Fire Safe Council and a member of the Tuolumne County Tree Mortality Task Force. Involved with the issue from the get-go and exposed to the critical funding problem for some private landowners through council-led firebreak projects, he spoke of his mounting worries to fellow members at a meeting, imploring them to sponsor some sort of relief assistance. Raising what he jokingly calls his “helium hand,” fellow member Tom Penhallegon cheerfully volunteered to chair the fundraising end and help research ways and means.

As Gottschall explains to Clarke Broadcasting, “If you are on a fixed income — and quite a few of our older people here are in that boat — they don’t have a means to come up with $500 to $5,000 [cost per tree] to get to trees that are a problem for their house or their neighbors’ houses. This is kind of what spurred us to come up with a means to solve our problem in this county, or at least come up with a way to help these people.”

Penhallegon states simply, “We are somehow going to find the funds to do it. We are looking at this being two to four-year project…through fundraising and applying for grants on a timely process.” Yesterday afternoon, Penhallegon says, $5,000 in seed money, donated by the Sonora Lions was deposited into an account through the Sonora Area Foundation, which will be handling donations large and small from in and out of the community. Anyone interested may contact the foundation or send in a check, specifying that the donation is for TMAP. A recent blog by Sonora Area Foundation Director Ed Wyllie has details on how to donate to TMAP here.

Mustering A Village Of Support 

“We are just now starting our capital campaign for money and are going to be doing that through volunteers in the community…working with Kiwanis and Rotary of the county and bringing them together as one large fundraising group as a joint effort,” Penhallegon adds.

Rotarian Greg Oliver, according to Penhallegon, will be stepping up to serve as executive director for the TMAP effort; board members currently include County Supervisor Sherri Brennan and OES Administrative Analyst Ethan Billigmeier. Penhallegon is now assembling a team of volunteers to focus on research and writing grants. “Each of the three service organizations will be going to their international headquarters. The Lions have a $100,000 grant that I am going after next month — these are all great possibilities for funding because it is a humanitarian effort,“ he states. He hopes to have $100,000 in the TMAP account by Sept. 15, the official project kick-off date.

Plans are, according to Penhallegon, to cover 100 percent of the cost for qualified applicants to remove hazard trees within striking area of their home. The owners, themselves, would directly sign the contract with a pre-screened tree operator who is licensed, bonded and insured. When work is done, TMAP officials will inspect the site before paying the bill. While work scope would include tree debris removal and clean up, homeowners who want chips or wood cut to length left behind could write those preferences into their contract. Any of the wood from the trees with salvage value, he emphasizes, goes to the contractors, who would take it and discount the job by that amount, further extending the TMAP coffers.

Looking At A $2 Million Effort

While more needs assessment on the project is being developed, currently held estimates, number-crunched with input from Area 12 Agency on Aging Executive Director Kristin Millhoff, indicate that the number of impacted homeowners in the target group is somewhere between 500 to 1,000 people. Figuring that an average of $2,000 per parcel might be necessary, estimating two trees at $1,000 each, Gottschall says the wild guesstimate cost figure to do the work might be $2 million.

In order to execute the project as cost-effectively as possible, Gottschall states, “A lot of coordination needs to be done in advance to plan and maximize the money. We are going to follow the PGE and county effort…and tap those [tree removal] contractors at the same time.” He shares somberly, “I have seen many many situations where homes are threatened. It is a timing factor We just need to be addressing this as quickly as possible, as economically…and as thoroughly as possible, at this point. We don’t people to be risking their lives, staying in homes that are being threatened by trees…where people might lose their home or lose their life in the process.”

The Area 12 board of directors meet next week and give its official nod to the paperwork end of the project, Millhoff says her office is now taking phone calls from interested parties who might meet the criteria in order to help gauge the scope of the need in the community. As soon as forms are ready folks will be able to formally apply for the program.

Qualifying For TMAP Support

According to Millhoff, current criteria includes that applicants be at least an age 60 or disabled adult over 18 who is the homeowner of their primary residence property, which must be located in Tuolumne County. For an individual, one-income household, the maximum annual income would need to be at or under $29,700; for a two-income one, the maximum allowable is $40,050 per year. Among the other qualifiers for homeowners, there must be no more than a total of $20,000 in stocks, bonds, CDs, annuities and savings accounts. The trees eligible for removal must be within 150 feet of the primary residence.

TMAP will be also sharing an office at Area 12, developing handouts explaining the process, as well as setting up a dedicated TMAP phone number and web page. Interested homeowners who meet the abovementioned criteria are encouraged to call the Area 12 office at 532-6272. TMAP plans are to both tap into and complement other related local efforts, as reported here, which include the county’s recently set up Tree Mortality hotline. As reported here, the number is staffed by volunteers who are current on the latest available local assistance efforts. These will shortly include details on TMAP.  The number is 209 533-6394 and feeds two lines, so if both are busy, callers may leave a voicemail message that will be returned as soon as possible.

Gottschall urges homeowners with dead and dying trees close to their homes to reach out for help if they need it. “Don’t wait too long and don’t let it go. This is a situation that can hurt people and property.” Too, he warns, abandoning homes due to tree issues should not be considered an alternative. Not only do the dangers remain, the trees become too daunting for many would-be buyers, so that the properties lose salability, presenting yet another possibly tremendous economic problem to the county.