Drought impact on Sierra forests starting to show in Nevada | SierraSun.com

Drought impact on Sierra forests starting to show in Nevada

Geoff Dornan
gdornan@nevadaappeal.com

C-Hill in the Carson Valley, as seen from the seat of a powered hang glider Friday.

CARSON CITY, Nev. — U.S. Forest Service officials say the number of trees in Sierra Nevada forests killed by drought and bark beetles now is in the millions.

And Nevada forestry's Natural Resources Manager says the damage is starting to show on this side of the Sierra as well.

"All you've got to do is stand back and take a look up the hillside," said John Christopherson. "You see dead trees and dying trees."

According to the forest service, an estimated 66 million trees have died over the past half-dozen years in California's southern Sierra.

Further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates roughly 28 million trees California were dead or dying in 2015 as a result of the ongoing drought — of that, 93,167 were trees in the Tahoe National Forest, while 35,038 were within the Lake Tahoe Basin, according to previous reports.

Christopherson said the worst hit areas on Nevada's side of the Sierra are the forests lower down the slopes. When there isn't enough moisture, he said the trees become weakened and susceptible to attack by bark beetles.

Recommended Stories For You

Simply put, he said, "there are too many trees vying for a limited amount of moisture."

"Driving into work every day, you notice up on the hillside a few more going out," he said. "They turn yellow, then red, then brown. But it shouldn't come as a surprise when you have however many successive years of below normal moisture."

That sets the Sierra up for what could become one of the worst wildfire seasons ever.

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency and formed a task force to find ways to remove dead and dying trees that threaten motorists and mountain communities.

Federal Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the forest service, said the area faces potential disaster if Congress doesn't invest more money in managing the forests.

"Tree die-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that puts property and lives at risk," he said in a statement to the Associated Press. "We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country."

Since 2010, an estimated 66 million trees have died in a six-county California region of the central and southern Sierra hardest hit by the epidemic, the U.S. Forest Service said.

The Forest Service has committed $32 million to that task in California and the state has budgeted another $11 million to remove dead trees.

Christopherson said the situation seems more serious in California than in Nevada, but that, "it definitely appears to be on the rise over here."

Thus far, he said the damage is primarily on the East Slope of the Sierra.

"I'm not seeing a whole lot of dieback in the piñons and junipers as you head east from the Sierra Front here," he said. "But it could be just a matter of time."

Beyond the drought, he said it could be viewed as a natural reset.

"It could be an indication there are more trees than really sustainable, Mother Nature's way of taking care of things, thinning the forest out," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.