Dire drought conditions threaten ancient trees in Kern County forests

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - As we enter the fifth year hoping of the record breaking California drought, hopes are set on El Nino to alleviate some of the stress on the Golden State and its trees.

The forest service estimates 12.5 million trees are dead in California forests, with millions more too stressed to survive much longer without water.

Here in the Golden Empire, the Greenhorn Mountains west of Lake Isabella have their own problem, which starts with the drought, but ends with a beetle.

The Greenhorn Mountains are being infiltrated by the bark beetle, U.S. Forest Service Ecosystem Manager Brian Block said.

"They eat the cambium layer which is this very thin layer between the bark and the hard sap wood of the tree – it's the vascular system of the tree,” Block said.

Block is the tree whisperer for the U.S. Forest service and surveys the land to see which trees are dead or about to die. He is setting up projects like the “Summit Project" for trees to be logged before they turn into standing matches … just waiting for a spark.

“What we find now is with the high densities is, we get larger pockets of things like bark beetles coming through or fires coming through and really taking out everything at a time," Block said.

And for people who live in the Alta Sierra community, the fear of fires raging from dead trees is a scary reality.

"On my property I have already lost a very large fir tree and there are other trees right near me that are dying, but they are dying everywhere,” homeowner Penny Lampkins said. “It may be green and healthy today given seven days it could be dead, it works that fast."

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead or dying trees will be taken out of the Greenhorns and surrounding Forest Service lands in the next few years. 

"Here with this project, 'the summit' we are really looking at fire safety first and foremost, so it is about protecting the community and giving them a fighting chance up here in Alta Sierra if a wildfire comes,” said Cody Norris, spokesman for U.S. Forest Service.

Some of the oldest trees on the planet are in Kern and Tulare counties and the ongoing conditions threaten their existence.

"These are what we call legacy trees. They have been around for a long time and it is important to keep these characteristics in the landscape,” Block said. “When we see these big trees dying like this it is very, it’s kind of emotional.”

The issue isn't unique to the Greenhorns – It's happening all over Kern County and California.

And the beetle isn't going anywhere until the drought is over. 

If you are interested in weighing in on the "Summit Project", you can find more information on the U.S. Forest Service's website. 


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