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The Pine Trees Are Dying All Over California

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Our pine trees are dying!  The pine bark beetles are ravaging our drought-stressed trees and taking them down by the thousands, and there really isn’t much we can do about it.  In some cases, the trees are turning brown within a week.  The swaths of standing, dead timber could mean massive devastation during fire season.  This folks, is a direct cause of climate change.

Extreme drought conditions in California have stressed the trees and made them vulnerable to disease and pests.  The pine bark beetles typically go dormant in the cold season, but because this winter has been so mild, and there haven’t been enough consecutive frost days, the beetles have been swarming and the trees cannot recover.

The Beetle Attack

The Western Pine Beetles attack ponderosa and Coulter pines, throughout California.  The beetles typically attack sick trees and dense stands, naturally thinning the forests of the weaker trees.  Usually when the beetles bore into healthy trees, the trees can “pitch out” the attackers by ejecting them with resin.  Trees that are drought-weakened simply don’t have enough fluid to protect themselves.  The adult beetles carry a blue-staining fungus that is released into the tree while they bore. The spores of the fungus germinate and spread throughout the wood, cutting off the tree’s moisture supply.  The fungus turns the wood a gray-blue color as it takes over the tree.  Once the beetles have bored into the moist phloem (inner bark), they lay their eggs and may even reemerge to damage another tree.  As the larvae grow, they continue to feed on the inner bark of the tree, causing even more moisture loss.  At higher elevations where winters are cold, the beetles usually only swarm in June and August.  However, with the lack of snow this winter, they have already been swarming for months.  The woodpeckers, their natural predators, simply cannot keep up with the millions of beetles.

beetle kill tree

Can an infestation be stopped?

Once a tree has become infested with beetles, nothing can be done to save it.  Beetle infested trees must be cut down and the bark burned to prevent them from emerging and spreading.  This is costly for landowners, and sometimes not possible for vastly forested areas, but it is important to take care of the dead trees before they become a fire danger.

Infected trees have crown damage, and usually die from the top down.  By the time the needles turn brown, most of the beetles have emerged and moved on.  The USDA created this pamphlet to help landowners identify species of trees and beetles, and determine susceptibility.

beetle kill trees

Forest Management

Calfire suggests thinning forests to increase the health and vigor of the individual trees.  Beetles perfer over-crowed trees because they tend to be weaker and it is easy for them swarm from tree to tree.  Well spaced trees can interrupt the beetle’s communication system of pheromones, making it more difficult for them to swarm.  A forest of diverse species and ages of trees is more resistant to beetles and other epidemics, and reduce tree mortality if an attack does occur.

Pine beetle death is not something new, Colorado has been trying to manage a Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic since the mid-1990’s.  Entire forests have been decimated by beetles in the Rocky Mountains, and up through Canada, about 3.5 million acres of forest land has been damaged.  The forestry and local government agencies have had to take a role in removing many of the dead trees to protect watersheds and prevent super-fires.   The beetles in the Colorado area have finally started to decrease, as they have eaten their way through all of the weaker trees.  Experts says it will take 100 years for the forests to recover.

What about the dead trees?

Tree removing specialists throughout California are scheduled out for months, and leaving the felled trees as firewood for landowners.  Unfortunately, the pine only stays viable as firewood for about two years before it begins to decompose.  How much firewood can we go through, anyway?  Some local timberland owners are logging the blue pine and selling it to China, to be made into cardboard.

A few small lumber companies (mostly in Colorado) have been milling the blue pine to be used for trim work, siding, cabinets, table-tops and flooring.  The structure of the pine is not the most desirable for working with, but it is quite beautiful, and about as “eco” as you can go.  The blue pine, or beetle kill pine, is tricky because it cracks as it dries, so not all trees can be milled for lumber.  It’s worth investigating in your local area if you have these dead pines on your property, or are planning a construction project.  At the very least, something beautiful can come from all this devastation.

Beetle Pine Kill products

“Beetle Pine Kill” products from Sustainable Lumber Company in Colorado

Jack Johnson teamed up with The Climate Reality Project to spread awareness of the pine beetle kills, and how our environment is being impacted by climate change.  The beetle kill guitar is a beautiful way to give new life and build something positive from this terrible devastation.

Rainfall would strengthen the trees, and colder winters would put the beetles back in check, but weather is not something we can control.  Under more normal circumstances, beetles play an important role in naturally thinning the forests, perhaps these massive kills will help reestablish some sort of equilibrium?  Maybe the loggers are right, this epidemic is due to poor forest management all along.  But the fact is, with fewer trees absorbing carbon dioxide, our planet is only going to get warmer, and our conifer forests will continue to suffer.  Will they go away entirely, or figure out how to adapt?

Climate change is here, now.  We need to talk about it, and we need to make some serious changes.  We all need to accept this reality and start working toward a clean, sustainable future… then we can build something beautiful.


Many thanks to Harp Ties Gerakin for photographing the trees in South Lake County, California.



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