As Bear Valley continues to seek alternatives to combat the pine bark beetle problem in its forested areas, its board of directors on June 25 held a forum to address the problem.
Tom Smith from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), timber trimmer Chriso Lee, forester Jeff Gletne and Bear Mountain Ranch owner Chuck Abel formed the round table and lead the discussion.
Bill Mason, president of the CSD board of directors, said the district's policy to handle pine bark beetles is to send out an arborist to identify infected trees, establishes a public hearing to allow property owners to speak.
"Long story short, the property owners are required to do something about it, i.e. cut down the trees," Mason said. "If they don't pay for it, it ends up as a lien on their property taxes."
Mason said at some point a few months back, the board asked itself whether the approach had any real effect on the problem.
"Someone told us that by the time the trees are cut down, the pine bark beetles are long gone and off munching on some other tree," Mason said.
Lee, who has handled the removal of pine trees for the last seven years in Bear Valley, confirmed Mason's comment.
"By the time the tree is actually tagged and we are able to remove the tree, it could be three months," Lee said. "The bugs have killed the tree and left."
The voracious bugs attack smaller Jeffrey pines and large ponderosa alike, he added.
"The larger pines require a lot of water that they are just not getting," Lee said. "The stress that is put on these trees is cumulative."
He called the pine bark beetle an opportunistic bug that would inflict as much damage as it could.
Smith, one of Cal Fire's leading pest management specialists, said the statewide drought puts the situation in a precarious scenario.
"We keep expecting the pine bark beetles to explode, and in most of the state, they haven't been," Smith said. "The only area so far that has been showing up is in the Tehachapi area."
The number one thing to do is to remove any trees that show signs they have been infected by the beetles, Smith said. He noted that the closet mill is two hours away in Terra Bella. Other solutions include cutting them down and chipping them if at all possible.
"That just destroys the beetle's habitat," Smith said.
Another, less viable, solution would just to pile them up and cover them in plastic ― a tricky proposition given the wild animal population in the Tehachapi area.
Smith added that thinning the forest at the moment would be worst thing to do.
"We are in a drought and when you thin, it attracts the beetles in," Smith said. "We need to wait until we get good rainfall again."
Abel, owner of Bear Mountain Ranch, said that the top of the mountain has a notable pine bark beetle problem.
"Since I have had the ability to do something about it, I've been trying to implement a plan to where we can eradicate the beetle," Abel said. "We have had various experts look at the forest and we have come with a timber harvest plan to accomplish that, and with your help we hope can get it done."
Bear Mountain Ranch includes an area that has not been harvested or logged in more than 80 years.
Another option to combat the pine bark beetles was presented via teleconference by entrepreneur George Hahn, owner of Worm Gold. Hahn said that his product, a fertilizer produced from high concentration of ground worm casings (or worm droppings), would help restore vitality to the trees.
"Most people are looking at the loss of the trees and blaming bark beetles, and we have found that is not true," Hahn said. "They are starving for nutrition."
Hahn billed his product as a means to healthily restore vitality to trees that were suffering from a lack of water and good soil. He added that it would cost less than logging or cutting down trees.
Hahn also noted that a healthy forest could manage to keep a pine bark beetle infestation at bay.
Following the presentation, both Smith and Lee said there are concerns about the claims. Lee noted that any tree's health is linked to proper water, something that isn't in a lot of abundance in Bear Valley's root system.
Hahn has faced some challenges to the claims of his product, especially when the California Department of Pesticide Regulation fined Hahn $100,000 in 2009 for selling his product as an unregistered pesticide.
Hahn had responded by filing his objections in court, eventually going all the way to the state appellate court. The court sided with the state, keeping the fine against Hahn intact.
Time for decisions
Kern County Fire Capt. Derrick Davis, a member of the wildland fire division, said precautions have to be taken to both curb the pine beetle problem and remove trees affected by the situation.
Some of the recommendations included that if trees are thinned, to not leave behind slash, or wood chips and limbs that remain after trees have been removed.
Alpine Forest, a gated community seven miles south of Bear Valley, has already undergone a removal process for its pine trees, Davis said.
Gletne, the forester, echoed Davis' comment about Alpine Forest, noting there are about 600 acres of trees to cull. The logging began June 23.
"They have a lot more dead trees there," Gletne said. "We're hauling the logs out and Kern County Fire is going to help clean it up with no cost to taxpayers."
"You guys are in a really good time to make decisions," Davis said. Otherwise, Bear Valley could start become full of dead trees that could become fire hazards.
District staff and board members agreed that something had to be done.
"The mechanism we have at our availability is inadequate to meet our needs," said Pennel, the district's special projects consultant.