California needs smart solutions to dead trees

California needs smart solutions to dead trees

by Daniel Barad

Sacramento Bee OPINION January 17, 2018

Last month the U.S. Forest Service released astonishing estimates that the number of trees killed by drought and pine beetles in California has risen to 129 million in the past five years.

Rather than respond in a way driven by science, ecological values and common sense, state and local agencies continue to seek ways to remove dead trees. The first option they turn to is to burn dead trees in dirty incinerators. The logging industry is chomping at the bit for new land in remote areas.

This is a misplaced approach. Dead trees are vital components of the forest ecosystem and should be removed only when necessary. A dead tree near a home, power line or other infrastructure is downright dangerous, but there are not 129 million trees in this category.

Most are in remote areas, and removing them would be extremely costly and ecologically devastating. The black-backed woodpecker, northern fisher and northern spotted owl are among the species that rely on dead tree habitat. 

Also, dead trees store carbon for decades. As they decompose, much of their carbon returns to the soil, where it is held for thousands of years. In a large-scale removal, all that carbon is disturbed. Worse, when conventional biomass incinerators are used, it immediately releases carbon and worsens air pollution.

Yet after the 2016 tree mortality estimates came out, the Legislature passed a bill requiring large, investor-owned utilities to buy electricity from old biomass incinerators. With the new numbers, Californians have a chance to properly address this crisis.

Forest communities should receive funding to remove hazardous trees in innovative ways. Wood killed by beetles creates blue-stained furniture, paneling and flooring that home renovation shows adore. Some can be used as building material or be mulched for gardens.

The 2017 state budget allocates $200 million for fire prevention, but that money can be gobbled up quickly by a few destructive tree-removal projects. The funding can also go a long way in creating fire-wise and sustainable forest communities. Doing so will protect people and forest ecology.

Daniel Barad is an organizer for Sierra Club California. He can be contacted at

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