Millionth tree felled
Milestone marked in SB National Forest
By George Watson, Staff Writer
March 15, 2007
SKYFOREST - As a tree crashed to the earth Wednesday - signifying the cutting of the 1 millionth bark-beetle victim in the San Bernardino National Forest -so too ended a long-held belief.
Four summers ago, when people began worrying that the forest was becoming a firebomb, most talk centered strictly upon the notion that it was people's right to live in the forest.
On this Wednesday afternoon at Santa's Village nestled along Highway 18, with 30-foot-high piles of felled trees stacked in the background, officials put the onus of keeping the forest healthy on the people who live there.
"The fact is, what we have done was first of all wrong, and then right," said Dennis Hansberger, a San Bernardino County supervisor. "Today, we commit ourselves to the next task.
"For decades, Hansberger said, the forest was not appropriately managed, and by the term "manage," the supervisor primarily meant thinning trees to restrain the woods from becoming overgrown.
Such efforts had been largely unpopular among politicians and mountain dwellers alike.
But much has changed since the 2003 Old Fire destroyed nearly 1,000 homes. Dead and dying trees killed by drought and the bark beetle have been felled and removed at a rate of 750 per day. The federal government, led by Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, propelled the effort with a $70 million grant.
At the same time, Hansberger stated, residents must tackle the issues at hand, and not expect the federal government to come and heal the ills of the
"We do hope that Congressman Lewis and Senator (Dianne) Feinstein (D-Calif.) will be able to bring more money to the forest," Hansberger said of two of the forest's biggest benefactors.
But, Hansberger added, mountain dwellers should not count on it.
"If we are going to live in a forest, we have to manage it," he said. "And that means, too, the people who live there."
This was a day of celebration. Local, county, state and federal officials came to the area that had been home to one of the most successful stands by firefighters during the Old Fire. So, too, came a handful of local dignitaries.
They applauded the tree-removal effort to date, which has focused on trees surrounding mountain urban areas, such as Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear City.
They looked pleased when told that $10 million remained of the federal funds, enabling the tree cutting to continue.
"We have moved forward," said Peter Brierty, the county fire marshal who was one of the few voices in the early part of the decade who said the danger was growing quickly. "We have made hard decisions."
And while dead trees remain, officials such as Brierty and Hansberger say that the real work must focus on cutting some live trees. The forest is overgrown, they said, and trees are fighting, and dying, over the limited amount of water in the arid mountains.
And, officials added in assurance, the county has a substantial monitoring effort to ensure loggers aren't too enthusiastic in their work.
The tree-thinning argument is one that UC Riverside professor Richard Minnich has made for years. Too many parts of the forest have as many as 400 trees per acre, when history shows they should only have 40 per acre.
Of course, Minnich has argued that when wildfires ignite, firefighters need to let them burn. The reason? Fire will manage the forest and heal it better than any human effort.
But with thousands of people living in the mountains, letting wildfires go has never been a popular course of action.
For all of the good-will on this day, a hot sun beating down on the visitors presented a reminder of a growing concern for the mountains: the potentially historic lack of rain.
For more than a century, precipitation levels averaged 3.04 inches per month at the Bear Valley Dam in Big Bear Valley. But they averaged only 0.4 of an inch for the first two months of 2007. Since measures were first recorded there in 1883, the next lowest level was in 1942 when 1.08 inches fell on average per month. For the first two months of that year, typically two of the wetter months, an average of 1.5 inches fell.
Already, foresters with the San Bernardino National Forest are finding fuel moistures - the level of moisture in trees, grasses and shrubs - are at a level found in late August after the typical summer absence of rain.
"It raises our fire danger and it increases stress on the trees," said Forester Chris Stith.
Some fear the drought-like conditions are going to last for quite a while.
William Patzert, a climatologist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena, has for the past few years warned that Southern California could be heading toward a drought of historic proportions.
Three years ago, he likened the potential dry period to that of the Dust Bowl era, which ravaged the nation's prairie lands in the 1930s. Patzert believes a drought could last as long as 20 years.
"Mother Nature and human nature are conspiring," Patzert said Wednesday by telephone. "We'll have wet years and we'll have dry years. Whatever happens, the human nature to develop will continue to play havoc there."
How DRY is it, really?
It hasn't been this dry since 1942, when the average was 1.08 inches per month. The Bear Valley Dam in Big Bear Valley has averaged only 0.4 of an inch for the first two months of this year.
The next top-driest years were 1999, when it rained a total of 13.22 inches, 1953 with 13.3 inches, and 1896 with 13.39 inches.
The yearly average from 1883 to the present is 36.96 inches, with a monthly average of 3.04 inches.
Source: Bear Valley Dam