July Aug, 2003






Resource at Risk

Loggers are facing the challenges of urban logging in beetle-killed timber in Southern California.

By Kurt Glaeseman

Views of dying trees spreading across private and national forest land Views of dying trees spreading across private and national forest land John Blair, transplanted Washington State logger, shows how difficult it is to remove big wood from small private plots

John Blair, transplanted Washington State logger, shows how difficult it is to remove big wood from small private plots

After the devastating 2002 fire season, timber industries and the Forest Service are bracing for another attack, this time in a place often overlooked as a producer of big wood. The areas in and around the San Bernardino and Cleveland National Forests of Southern California are a tinderbox of dead and dying pine trees, and the potential for catastrophic fires has created a state of emergency. This time there’s a twist: dying timber is not confined to federal and state lands, but stretches over public and private lands, homes and cottages, businesses, municipal plots, Caltrans right-of-way, and public utility easements.

Organizing a fire suppression plan has become a jurisdictional nightmare, and thousands of board feet of potentially valuable lumber are lost on a daily basis.

Acres of Kindling
Aerial photographs show it best. Almost 90 percent of pines in the Lake Arrowhead region are already dead, and the mortality rate is climbing around the popular resort area of Big Bear Lake. Four consecutive years of drought and the unmeasured affects of heavy human intrusion have left the Ponderosa, Jeffery, Colter and sugar pines in a weakened state, unable to resist the attack of bark beetles. Infestations like this are not new, but according to Thomas Bonnicksen, a Texas A&M forest science professor who has studied California forests for more than 30 years, this is the worst insect-caused disaster in a forest community in modern history. It’s too late for a beetle eradication program and too late for the trees to heal themselves, even after comparatively normal rain and snowfall in the winter of 2002-2003.

According to Laura Merrill, entomologist for the Sand Bernardino, the western pine beetle, the mountain pine beetle and the Jeffrey pine beetle all attack the phloem cells in the sapwood. If a tree is healthy and strong, it produces plenty of resin, the pine’s natural protection against the bark beetle. The cells that line the resin canals are normally hydrated and turgid, with enough pressure to squeeze out resin and drown the beetles. A dehydrated tree loses this protective mechanism and the beetle thrives.

Time For Removal
Jon Regelbrugge, Lands and Forest Officer for the San Jacinto Ranger District, sees a combination of problems for fire suppression. The forests are overstocked. There has not been a recent forest fire, and thinning has not been allowed in the national forests. The private landowners have jealously guarded every tree on their small lots. This has created a heterogeneous mix; tree sizes range from young 8-foot tall trees to the mature 150-foot tall trees with a 5-foot dbh. As the trees die, they must all be removed. It is one thing to fall trees in a big tract of forest land, but it is a special challenge to drop them when the trunks are within inches of expensive houses, garages and decks. Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake are known as the weekend cottage sites and ski slopes for many of the wealthy Los Angeles folks. Southern California has long been a bastion for preservationists and “greenies,” but current aesthetic principles have given way to practical survival. The trees are dead. They present an ominous fire hazard. Even without fire, dead trees weaken and rot; they become brittle and snap in windstorms. Many owners are not waiting for the abatement notices. They know that the dead and dying trees should be removed immediately. The San Bernardino County Fire Department thoughtfully “…encourages residents to use a licensed contractor for tree removal and tree trimming…” and have included a list of licensed tree service contractors in the area. But removing trees in a densely populated area is slow and time-consuming. Contractors are limited by law as to how far out they can book their calendar time, and despite the pleas of property owners, many dead trees are simply not being removed.

Tree climber Tom Roth spends an eight hour day at the tops of tall pine trees, lowering limbs and biscuits to the ground crew.

Urban Logging
Loggers are scarce in Southern California, and most tree service personnel are not trained in urban logging. It’s one thing to fall trees in a big tract of forestland, but it’s a special challenge to drop them when the trunks are within inches of expensive homes. Insurance liability is so high that some contractors just say no. Many Northern California, Oregon, and Washington loggers responded to Help-Wanted ads but, when they saw the conditions, went back home. John Blair, who has logged for years in Washington, did stay on, but admits the situation was daunting: “We aren’t talking delimbers and yarders in a traditional woods setup. We’re using buckets and cranes. We’re decking logs on sidewalks and asphalt. We’re dropping 150-foot pines biscuit by biscuit. One of the hardest jobs is to find fallers and toppers who can put on the hooks and stay up there for a whole day at a time.” Another new curve is the necessity for coordinating several different agencies on one small job. If limbs are within 10 feet of a power line, a qualified Edison Electric Company faller must take over, and they’re backed up for weeks. If stump-grinding is part of the contract, there is always the possibility of underground cables, pipes and sewer lines. Often vehicle access is limited for big machinery — many cottages perch at the ends of twisting alleys and tight cul-de-sacs, with almost perpendicular drop-offs on the view side. The cost of removing these big trees averages from $500 to $700, but if a crane is involved, the price can quickly rise to $900 or $1000. A tree in a bad position can easily cost even more. Another complication — removal of limbs and wood once the tree is down. There are a limited number of sites accepting the debris. Every day a queue of trucks loaded with slash, needles, poles, biscuits and logs waits at the county disposal site, where the resource is chipped and hauled away as landfill. There is no viable co-gen plant in the immediate area.

Trees are topped and are dropped piece by piece.

Finding a Market
The bottom has dropped out of the firewood market. Biscuits split beautifully, but there is such a glut that no one wants them. Occasionally firewood trucks from Orange County make forays into the residential areas, where it is not uncommon to see a bunch of neat pine rounds with a sign: “Free to Good Home.” If a tree can be dropped in merchantable lengths, log trucks twist through mountain roads to the closest sawmill — at Terra Bella, 250 miles away. That’s a slow 500 mile roundtrip, and economically it doesn’t work out. The mill has lowered the price twice in recent months. It seems that the stressed pine quickly develops the ubiquitous blue stain, a syndrome that does not appreciably affect the structural quality but is less pleasing to the eye when more expensive clear pine is still available. The San Bernardino National Forest has finally put up several timber sales, primarily as fire suppression measures near recreation sites. But these sales are small by Oregon and Washington standards, and few bigtime loggers are attracted. Salvaging the resource is a race against time and a losing economic battle. In Jon Regelbrugge’s opinion, after a tree has been dead for one year, the checking and rotting of the softwood has become a major problem, with more rapid decomposition in the small wood.

Cross section of pine log showing the blue stain left from bark beetles

A Brighter Future
There are, however, some constructive steps being taken to cope with this ecological and economic disaster:
• Botanists are preparing lists of less vulnerable tree species landowners can plant to replace the dying pines. Inter-agency cooperation is at an alltime high.
• The San Bernardino Mountain Area Safety Task Force (MAST), an organization designed to keep all parties working on the same track, is there to head off emergency fire incidents.
• Political awareness is growing. Republican Colorado Congressman Scott McInness has worked on language for the Energy Bill that would spur the expansion of forest biomass energy production.
• More loggers and fallers from northern logging areas see this as a potential side job from their economically depressed local base.

Although Southern California logging rules are different, these loggers bring with them a store of knowledge of machinery and technical options, and perhaps innovative ideas for this new chapter in urban logging.


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This page was last updated on Tuesday, September 28, 2004