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California's Forests Continue To Die After Years Of Drought


California's record drought is officially over. But all over the states, trees are still dying. They've been badly weakened by years without water. From member station KPCC, Emily Guerin has a story of a community living in a dead forest.

EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: In Bear Valley Springs, Mark Anderson and his partner bought a house to get away from city stress. It's a small mountain community 125 miles north of Los Angeles at the tail end of the Sierra Nevada. But then, as he tells it, he found a whole new form of stress - the pine bark beetle.

MARK ANDERSON: They were so heavy that when I walked my dogs in the morning, my two little dogs, the beetles were attacking us even because they were just by the billions. And that's when everything started dying.

GUERIN: The bark beetle population exploded during the drought. They kill trees by burrowing into their bark, depriving them of food and water. Before the outbreak, Anderson had about 300 ponderosa pines on his four-acre property.

ANDERSON: You couldn't even see the house from the street.

GUERIN: Now Anderson's yard is a clear cut. There are just six pine trees left. Once his trees died, Anderson had to cut them down. It cost a lot of money.

ANDERSON: Seventy thousand dollars so far.

GUERIN: Seventy thousand dollars.

ANDERSON: Yeah, of our own money. And there's nothing to show for it except a trunk of a tree, you know? But we had to do it.

GUERIN: Because he worried his insurance wouldn't cover damage to the house from falling dead trees. But spending tens of thousands of dollars is pretty common for people who live in areas hard-hit by the drought and subsequent bark beetle outbreak. As you drive through Bear Valley Springs, the devastation is everywhere.

Oh, my God, look at this house.

I'm driving with Kern County forester Jeff Gletne. We pass a house that used to be surrounded by towering ponderosa pines. They've all been sawed off at the height of their roof.

JEFF GLETNE: So they get 30-foot stumps in their backyard.

GUERIN: The tree work has kept people like Jess Witten busy.


JESS WITTEN: And we have a guy with a chainsaw. He cuts the trees down. He bucks them up into links. And then we'll drag them into the landing. Then they get cleaned up and decked, loaded onto trucks.

GUERIN: It can cost up to a thousand dollars to pay a crew like Witten's to cut down and haul away a single tree.

SHARON WEAVER: It's like, that's not in our budget.

GUERIN: Sharon Weaver and her husband Ed are retired teachers. They moved to Bear Valley Springs four years ago for the trees.

ED WEAVER: We love the trees and the pine trees - you know, you smell them - and the squirrels running around.

GUERIN: Ed used to work in the timber industry in Idaho. And when the trees started dying, he thought, I can take care of this.

E. WEAVER: So I bought a chainsaw.

GUERIN: But then last summer he needed surgery and he couldn't cut down trees anymore. Forest ecologist Adrian Das is with the U.S. Geological Survey. He says the problem isn't going away.

ADRIAN DAS: Even after this very wet winter we're still seeing trees dying at abnormally high rates in the forests where we're looking.

GUERIN: The recent drought was the worst in 500 years, so scientists just don't know how long it will take the forest to recover or if it even will. Back in Bear Valley Springs, resident Mark Anderson says watching the forest die around him has ruined his dream home and the life he hoped to have here.

ANDERSON: We're tired and worn out and stressed out. It's not relaxing anymore.

GUERIN: His house in the mountains is on the market now. And lots of his neighbors are selling as well. A local realtor estimates about a third are getting out because of the dead trees. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin in Bear Valley Springs.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNCLE TUPELO SONG, "SANDUSKY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.