Millions of dead trees pose massive wildfire risk. What can be done?

The Forest Service spent 56 percent of its budget last year on firefighting, compared to 16 percent in 1995.  

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
A firefighter monitors a back burn during the 2013 Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, Calif.. Some 26 million trees have died in the eastern Sierras since October 2015, the US Forest Service said Wednesday.

Because of a historic five-year drought, warmer temperatures, and beetle infestation, 66 million trees have died in California since 2010, increasing the risk for disastrous wildfires, the US Forest Service said Wednesday.

In its announcement, the Forest Service demanded Congress allocate more money for firefighting so it doesn’t have to.

“Unless Congress acts now to address how we pay for firefighting, the Forest Service will not have the resources necessary to address the forest die-off and restore our forests,” said Tom Vilsack, secretary of the Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service, in a statement Wednesday.

“Forcing the Forest Service to pay for massive wildfire disasters out of its pre-existing fixed budget instead of from an emergency fund like all other natural disasters means there is not enough money left to do the very work that would help restore these high mortality areas. We must fund wildfire suppression like other natural disasters in the country."

The Forest Service spent 56 percent of its budget last year on fire management, compared to 16 percent in 1995. The Forest Service said 2015 was the most expensive fire season in its history, costing them more than $2.6 billion, according to The Sacramento Bee. 

The Forest Service expects the combination of drought and bark-eating beetles to ravage more trees near California’s Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe in the near future. As natural disaster attributed to climate change intensifies, the Forest Service’s plea to Congress underscores a question the federal government has wrestled of late: Who is responsible (and should pay for) forest and wildlife management?

As firefighters contend with several early season wildfires across California, the Forest Service said it has found 26 million dead trees across 760,000 acres in the southern portion of the Eastern Sierra since October 2015. This is in addition to the 40 million trees it estimates died there from 2010 and late 2015. There are an estimated 3.9 billion trees in California. 

The prevalent death of trees, in particular the death of pines and fires, is a straightforward story. The five-year drought and warmer temperatures have stressed the trees, even though California experienced historic rains this winter. The needles of drought-stricken pines weakened, leaving them incapable of secreting the sticky resin they need to fight off bark beetle infestations. Mild winters don’t kill off as many insects. Bugs burrow beneath bark and into the tree’s soft innards, which larvae feed on.

Officials expect more trees to die in the near future, and the rampant mortality to reach the northern Sierras.

"Tree dies-offs of this magnitude are unprecedented and increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires that puts property and lives at risk," said Mr. Vilsack, in his statement.

For years, the Forest Service has asked that fire management be funded like other natural disasters. Last year, a bipartisan coalition supported legislation that would have prevented the Forest Service from “cannablizing” its budget to fight wildfires, wrote Ryan Sabalow for The Sacramento Bee. But lawmakers couldn’t agree on how much logging should be allowed in national forests.

Fire suppression isn’t the only wildlife management service. At Yosemite National Park alone, more than half a billion dollars worth of repairs have been neglected, reports David Iaconangelo for The Christian Science Monitor.

Meanwhile, President Obama has overtaken former President Theodore Roosevelt, protecting 256 million acres of public land and water under the federal Antiquities Act, the Monitor’s Josh Kenworthy reported.

However, more national parks, forests, and monuments comes with a price, one the Forest Service has said it pays for, drawing away from its ability to manage forests and plant trees.  

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