California now has 102 million dead trees, a number that increased 62 million just in 2016 alone, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This is because the state has been in a severe drought for the last five years, with some parts of California not having seen rain in over 95 days.
There has also been an increase in bark beetle infestations
Both of these issues are resulting in dead trees. And those dead trees are at least a two-fold problem.
Dead trees are much more susceptible to catching fire. California and the Southwest have seen an increase in forest fires in recent years, due not only to the drought but to increased ambient temperatures as well. All those dead trees mean that wildfires catch more easily, and spread farther and faster, resulting in a larger loss of property and a greater threat to life as well.
“These dead and dying trees continue to elevate the risk of wildfire, complicate our efforts to respond safely and effectively to fires when they do occur, and pose a host of threats to life and property across California,” says Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The other problem is that those 102 million dead trees aren’t breathing, so they aren’t sequestering carbon—and when they catch fire, they release all that carbon back into the atmosphere. The drought and the higher temperatures are both the result of global climate change, which is hitting the American southwest pretty hard.
The answer to both problems is to remove the dead trees and replace them with young, growing trees. That won’t necessarily prevent other trees from dying, but it can help with the climate change issue, as it will result in more trees sequestering carbon.
The problem comes down to money. The Forest Service has most of its budget tied up in fighting forest fires, which makes sense as wildfires can be serious threats. But not enough of the budget is going toward preventing those fires in the first place. The answer to the problem of all those dead trees seems simple: give the Forest Service more money so they can do their job. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen in the near term.
“USDA [the Forest Service’s parent agency] has made restoration work and the removal of excess fuels a top priority,” says Vilsack, “but until Congress passes a permanent fix to the fire budget, we can’t break this cycle of diverting funds away from restoration work to fight the immediate threat of the large unpredictable fires caused by the fuel buildups themselves.”