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Posts Tagged: forest health

Replanting the Sierra Nevada after an ecological catastrophe

Reposted from UCANR News

Given California's changing climate, should Sierra Nevada residents replant pine trees after so many died during the 2010-2016 drought? The short answer is yes, says Susie Kocher, UC Cooperative Extension forestry advisor.

“We have every reason to believe that pines will continue to be an important part of mixed conifer forests in the Sierras,” Kocher said.

Dead trees can be seen in the foreground and on the distant mountain side. (Click on photos for higher resolution.)
 

Kocher spoke at a meeting for UC Master Gardeners, volunteers who provide landscape advice to the public in California. Questions have been coming in to Master Gardener hotlines from mountain residents wondering what to do after unprecedented tree loses in the last few years.

Most California forests are suffering from severe overcrowding due to 100 years of aggressive fire suppression and selective harvesting of the largest and most resilient trees. They were then subjected to five years of drought.

“There were just too many stems in the ground,” Kocher said. “The drought was very warm, so trees needed more water, but got less. These were optimal conditions for bark beetles.”

Western pine beetle is a native pest that attacks larger ponderosa pine and Coulter pine trees weakened by disease, fire, injury or water stress. Bark beetles are tree species specific, so other beetles target other species of trees in California's mixed conifer forests. Typically, bark beetles bore through tree bark and create long winding tunnels in the phloem. An aggregating pheromone attracts additional bark beetles to the tree, and heavily attacked trees invariably die.

Healthy pine trees can fight off bark beetle attack by secreting pitch. Trees weakened by drought are unable to fend off an attack. In this photo, a pine beetle is stuck in pitch that oozed from the tree.
 
 
Evidence of bark beetle attack are exit holes on the outside, left, and winding galleries under the bark.
 

During the drought, 102 million Sierra Nevada trees died from bark beetle attack or simply lack of water; 68 million of those died in 2016 alone. But after the abundant rainfall in the 2016-17 season, the bark beetle population seems to have crashed.

Landowners with 20 acres or more may be eligible for a state cost-sharing program to remove trees, reduce the fire hazard and replant new seedlings. Landowners in mountain communities who wish to revitalize their properties can contact local UC Master Gardeners for recovery advice.

UC Master Gardeners are plant enthusiasts who have passed an intense training program presented by UC academics. They participate in continuing education annually to update and maintain their knowledge. More than 60 Master Gardeners from Mariposa, Madera and Fresno counties gathered in Oakhurst in October to learn from UC scientists how to work with mountain homeowners whose towering trees have died. Similar training sessions, all funded by a grant from UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, were held in El Dorado and Tuolumne counties in June.

UCCE specialist Jodi Axelson points out bark beetle damage.
 

“There is life after beetles,” said Jodi Axelson, UC Cooperative Extension forestry specialist at UC Berkeley.

“Eco systems are stretched, and then they come back,” she said. “You must remember the time scale of forest change is long and pines have been a major species in the Sierra Nevada for at least 28,000 years. As long as there have been pines, there have been bark beetles.”

The scientists suggest that people who own forestland take a step back and assess the landscape after their dead trees have been removed.

“We're seeing a lot of young cedar and white fir surviving the drought. Oaks seems to be doing really well,” Kocher said.

She suggests landowners thin young trees so available sun and soil moisture are focused on the healthiest trees. Water seedlings that are receiving more sun than before to reduce stress. Planting native conifers is the best option. Due to climate change, she recommends choosing trees from a slightly lower elevation to hedge against warmer temperatures in the future.

Pines are adapted to the California forest, but may need help to regenerate. When the ground is moist in the late fall or spring, plant seedlings 10 to 14 feet apart. New trees should be planted well away from homes to maintain defensible space and at least 10 feet from power lines.

“Please don't set them up for future torture,” Kocher said. “That's just sad.”

UCCE forestry advisor Susie Kocher, center, speaks during a field trip to a forest where many trees were killed by bark beetles.
 

To help the new trees become established, cover the ground around the tree, but not touching the bark, with two or three inches of mulch and irrigate weekly during the dry season for the first few years.

Questions about special circumstances may be directed to local UC Master Gardeners. Find the local program here: http://mg.ucanr.edu/FindUs/

Pouch fungus is evidence of a bark beetle kill. The beetles carry fungus into the cambial layer of the tree on their bodies. On recently killed trees, small white conks, the fungus' fruiting body, issues from bark beetle tunnels.
 
 
UC Master Gardeners learn from experts about replanting conifer forests.
 

 

 

 

Posted on Wednesday, October 25, 2017 at 1:37 PM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert

Scott Stephens Speaks at California Forest Management Hearing

Reposted from UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management

In response to California's growing tree mortality crisis, the Little Hoover Commission held a public hearing on California Forest Management yesterday (January 26) at the state capital in Sacramento.

Professor Scott Stephens, a fire scientist in the department of environmental science, policy, and management, delivered the opening remarks. He provided background on the causes and magnitude of tree losses happening across the state. "Our forests are not in a resilient condition," he said. "Past management actions, including fire suppression and logging focused on large trees have produced forests today that are much more vulnerable to fire and drought-related mortality." Stephens made suggestions for legislation, policy, and forest management techniques that could help restore resilience to California's forest ecosystems and prevent future mortality crises. He also offered ideas on how the state could better work with private landowners as well as the federal government to promote healthier forests. 

Read Professor Stephens' complete testimony, as well as the those of others who spoke at the meeting, on the Little Hoover Commission's website

Posted on Sunday, January 29, 2017 at 3:49 PM
  • Author: ESPM News

Drones help monitor health of giant sequoias

Reposted from UC Berkeley News

Todd Dawson's field equipment always includes ropes and ascenders, which he and his team use to climb hundreds of feet into the canopies of the world's largest trees, California's redwoods.

It's laborious work, but he'll soon be getting a little help. From drones.

Dawson, a professor of integrative biology and environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley has teamed up with Parrot to test the company's drone-based research tools as a way to monitor the Sierra Nevada's giant sequoias more intensively, helping him find out how they utilize water and sunlight and predict how they will deal with a warmer Earth and changes in water supply.

The need is urgent, Dawson said. Since 2010, more than 102 million trees, mostly pines and firs, have died in California because of drought, 62 million in 2016 alone. Why are pines and firs succumbing, but the thousand-year-old sequoias surviving, and will that continue into the future?

In August, he and Gregory Crutsinger, a plant ecologist and head of scientific programs at Parrot, performed the first test of a drone, a quadcopter, equipped with a state-of-the-art multispectral camera that takes photos in red, green and two infrared bands. Called the Sequoia, the camera works like more expensive satellite and airborne sensors, measuring the sunlight reflected by vegetation in order to assess physiological activity or plant health.

“Before, a team of five to seven people would climb and spend a week or more in one tree mapping it all around,” Dawson said. “With a drone, we could do that with a two-minute flight. We can map the leaf area by circling the tree, then do some camera work inside the canopy, and we have the whole tree in a day.”

drone path around sequoia

A camera-equipped drone can scan the same tree multiple times a day to produce digital maps of the leaves and branches (inset) as they change their respiration and photosynthesis throughout the day.

After the data and photos were stitched together by a software program called Pix4D, Dawson and Crutsinger ended up with a three-dimensional representation of the foliage that his team had never seen before – information that will be used to determine how much carbon the tree takes up each day and how much water it uses, the basis for assessing what might happen with higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and less water on and in the ground.

“With repeat flights you can watch a forest grow without ever actually measuring any trees in the forest,” Dawson said. “I think drone technology holds a lot of promise to do some very innovative science over time and in three-dimensional space with a relatively cheap tool. It is really pretty amazing.”

Monitoring the health of the state's iconic sequoias is just one instance of how drones, combined with state-of-the-art sensors, can benefit science, Crutsinger said.

digital scan of the crown of a giant sequoia.

A digital scan of the crown of a giant sequoia.

“Drone technology is getting much cheaper, but stitching and photogrammetry are innovating at the same time,” he said, referring to the science of making measurements from photos. “That is the backbone of the whole new commercial drone industry: not just the ability to capture the data, but also to process very high-resolution photos into millions of points that generate a three-dimensional model. This is going to help science but also environmental monitoring, agriculture and even construction sites.”

Crutsinger, a former Miller postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, is asking other scientists to propose research collaborations with Parrot in exchange for free drones, cameras and analysis software. These Climate Innovation Grants are open to any student or researcher around the world.

Monitoring a changing environment

Dawson is now assessing how best to use the initial data and the drone and camera to answer questions in plant ecology. For the giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), which he studies in the University of California's 320-acre Whitaker Forest just outside Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park, he anticipates learning a lot more about their physiology than can be achieved by roping onto the canopy. Knowing the leaf area alone is a key advance, since he and his team have been able to model only the trees' branches and twigs, from which they estimate leaf surface.

Todd Dawson wearing a first person viewer

Todd Dawson gets a first person view of what the drone is seeing in the crown of a giant sequoia.

“If we know how much area is there, I can tell you how many tons of carbon per meter squared per day was fixed by that forest, and how much water was used by that leaf area per day. You can start to get at rates of carbon exchanged between the tree and the atmosphere and then at rates of carbon sequestration,” he said. “These are important numbers for our forecasting models, so we can say, ‘If the climate goes up by 2 degrees, or it gets drier by 10 percent, what the hell is going to happen to that productivity?' All of a sudden you have power to really measure the pulse of the Earth, which is a really hard thing to do at large scales.”

Dawson is keen to see how drones and specialized sensors can aid his other research, which involves not only giant sequoias but also coastal redwoods, California's oaks and the canopy epiphytes in the clouds forest of Costa Rica. But he also sees a wealth of other possibilities.

scaling a sequoia

UC Berkeley graduate student Cameron Williams and researcher Rikke Naesborg scaling a giant sequoia in the Whitaker forest outside Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

“I think this is one of the tools for ‘change detection' that we are going to find is a game changer,” he said. “We can do this quickly and accurately over natural lands and agricultural lands and forest that burned and places that were hit by hurricanes or droughts, and look at the changes taking place and why they are taking place much more easily than we did before.”

Dawson doesn't plan to give up climbing trees, though. Some data will still need to be captured in the tree tops, if only to connect drone observations with tree physiology and ecology.

“The low-hanging fruit right now is really, what basic-level things that take up a lot of time can we replace with the drone, and what do we still need to do with boots on the ground in the field,” Crutsinger said. “If we can just save time and person power, that is most of the cost of doing scientific research, particularly in ecology. We are looking to augment what already happens on the ground — or in this case the crown — and then think about what new questions we can ask as well.”

Posted on Friday, December 9, 2016 at 2:29 PM
  • Author: Robert Sanders

It's not too late to make California forests resilient to wildfire

Reposted from the UCANR News Blog

Even though there has been a deficit of fire in California forests for decades, their future is not hopeless, said UC Berkeley fire science professor and UC Agriculture and Natural Resources researcher Scott Stephens in an interview with Craig Miller on KQED Science.

"The next 25 to 30 years are paramount. If you begin to do restoration, reduce density, make forests more variable in pattern, and less fuel, when you have episodes of drought and fire, it's going to be fine. The forests have been doing this for millennia. It's going to be fine," Stephens said.

UC researcher Scott Stephens shows fire scars on pines that reveal regular exposure to burns and then healing and regrowth, a sign of a healthy forest ecosystem. (Photo: Lindsey Hoshaw, KQED Science)
 

However, under current conditions, in which fires have been regularly suppressed, the situation is dire.

"The forests used to burn every 12 to 15 years, but most places haven't been touched for 50 to 100 years. Today we have areas with 300 or 400 trees per acre, where you used to have 50 to 80," he said.

Even though, Stephens said he is an optimist. "There's still opportunity today to do restoration, so that when it does get warmer and warmer, as projected, the forests will be able to deal with that, deal with insects and disease and keep themselves intact."

UC researcher Scott Stephens believes that with restoration, California forests will be fine. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
 
 
Posted on Wednesday, August 17, 2016 at 5:21 PM
  • Author: Jeannette Warnert

Fried to a Crisp: Why Some Experts Say We Must Burn the Trees to Save the Forests

Reprinted from California Magazine

The recent rains have blunted the psychological impact of California's four-year drought, washing down the streets, perking up the landscaping, and heightening anticipation for a stormy El Nino-driven winter. We know, however, that one wet year is highly unlikely to end water shortages. What we may not fully grasp is that the damage done to the state's forests is so far reaching that it may be permanent.

How bad is it? Really, really bad. Horrendous, in fact. Sally Thompson, an assistant professor in UC Berkeley's department of civil and environmental engineering, cites the status of the state's iconic giant sequoias as an example.  Thompson notes that Cal biology professor Todd Dawson has been monitoring the biggest trees on earth, “and has found that they're extremely stressed. They're dropping leaves—some of them may die. These are trees that have lived 3,000 years, enduring a wide range of environmental conditions, including other droughts. And now they're being killed by this drought. That's suggestive of what we're facing. We're heading into uncharted territory.”

And it's not just giant sequoias. Virtually all of California's trees are drought-stressed, and many are going down for the count. Thompson observes the U.S. Forest Service conducted flights over 8.3 million acres of woodland in the southern Sierra, the Central Coast and Southern California in April and concluded that about 10 percent of the conifers and oaks—about 12.5 million trees—had died in recent months. They had either expired directly from drought or succumbed to bark beetles, which attack weakened trees.

The situation has only grown more grim. Two weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, warning that the U.S. Forest Service estimates “more than 22 million trees are dead and that tens of millions more are likely to die by the end of this year.” He asked for federal assistance and called for an accelerated program to cut and clear dead trees, expand the practice of prescribed burns and temporarily allow more burning of wood waste.

Greg Asner, a biologist with the Carnegie Institute for Science, used spectrometers and lasers to evaluate forest canopies on flights out of Sacramento and Bakersfield. The procedures yielded 3-D topographic displays that show the forest in varying shades of blue (healthy) yellow (somewhat stressed) and red (deeply stressed to dying or dead). Bottom line: There's a lot of red in them thar hills. Asner concluded about 20 percent of California's forests are doomed—up to 120 million trees.

The images reveal the trees are dying in a mosaic pattern, says Thompson.

“You'll see patches of dying trees in the middle of healthier forest,” she says. “That's probably due to such things as south-facing slopes or shallow soils. You'd expect such areas to experience (drought-related) stress first. But there's a tremendous volume of dead wood building up all across the forests, and that's pointing to a future that is potentially very

scary.”

Such a vast accumulation of fuels could lead to wildfires that are perhaps unprecedented in their ferocity. They could be so intense and of such a vast scale that they could lead to broad “ecotonal shift” —the evolution of entire forests from one vegetative regime to another. Ponderosa pine forests, for example, could convert to chaparral fields.  Oak woodlands could change to grassy savannas. (As California previously noted, such ecotonal changes already may be occurring on Mt. Laguna in Southern California.)

That all sounds pretty apocalyptic no matter how you burn it, but Thompson observes we don't have to just sit back and take it. It turns out there's quite a bit that could be done to fireproof our forests—and perhaps increase water availability in the process. All it will take is a fair amount of money and political will.

“It's clear that there is more standing biomass—trees—in our forests than existed before active fire suppression began a century or so ago,” says Thompson. “Studies show that the canopies are heavier, and the forests are more vulnerable to fire as a result.”

A little background: Prior to Euro-American settlement, California's coniferous forests were characterized by extremely large, widely-spaced trees. Annals of the day—both textual and pictorial— made it clear that you could ride a horse through the forests unimpeded. There was little or no fuel (branches and dead trees) on the ground. The character of the forests was due to the occurrence of fire, both natural and human-induced; California's natives burned the forests periodically to make hunting easier and encourage the growth of food plants, including acorn-bearing oaks, seed-producing grasses, and bulbs.

The good news: The forests of our forebears probably can be reclaimed. All we have to do is burn and cut down a lot of trees.

In the old days, fire noodled around in a low-energy fashion on the forest floors, killing insect pests, nibbling back the underbrush, and converting deadwood to ashes that ultimately nourished the great pines and firs. Today, wildfires rip through entire landscapes of closely-packed trees, immolating everything down to mineral earth.

“Ultimately, the fires can be so intense that they take out all tree seed sources,” says Thompson, “so the system shifts to chaparral.”

Today's dense forests also have less biodiversity and suck up much more water than the forests of yesteryear. Thompson says studies of today's Sierra Nevada forests indicate they transpire 35 percent more water—that is, extract it from the ground through the roots and transfer it to the air as vapor via foliage—than 19th Century forests.

The good news: The biologically rich, fire resilient and amply watered forests of our forebears probably can be reclaimed. All we have to do is burn and cut down a lot of trees.

“There are three ways to go about it,” says Thompson. “Mechanical thinning, prescribed fire, and managed fire.”

Mechanical thinning would be the removal of trees by chainsaws or heavy equipment. Prescribed fire would be controlled burning—setting blazes when fuels are relatively damp and conditions are cool and humid, allowing for fires that reduce the forest canopy without destroying every standing tree and living creature. Managed fire is basically letting nature run its course. Wildfires would be allowed to burn in unpopulated areas, ideally when weather conditions aren't excessively hot and dry. The U.S. Forest Service is increasingly convinced of the wisdom of this approach. It recently inaugurated new management plans for three of California's national forests, approving managed fire for 50 percent of their acreages.

Thompson and UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management Scott Stephens are working on a project in Illilouette Creek basin in Yosemite National Park that seems to confirm the healing properties of fire.

“The National Park Service backed off fire suppression and began using managed fire in the basin in 1973,” says Thompson. “Scott and I are seeing strong evidence for increased plant diversity in the basin. There's much more meadowland and scrubland, and the resulting patchiness across the landscape reduces the risk for catastrophic wildfire. We're also seeing greater diversity in water conditions. There are more areas with persistently wetter soils than were recorded under the old completely forested state. We're now trying to determine whether these changes are increasing run-off from Illilouette Creek into the Merced River. “

Posted on Monday, November 16, 2015 at 10:03 AM
  • Author: Glen Martin

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