The Current Magazine Winter 2016/17 - Page 25

June Mountain

Reducing Fire Risk to Improve an Ecosystem

Over the next several years, CalTrout will be embarking on a project aimed to restore the health of a unique forest type, Whitebark pine, on June Mountain. The first phase of the project is slated to restore 110 acres, working in partnership with Inyo National Forest and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and made possible by a generous National Fish and Wildlife grant. Over 70 years of no fire activity, combined with periods of extended drought, have resulted in unnaturally dense and stressed forested stands. Bark beetles, native to California, are making the situation worse. They thrive on defenseless, dying trees, eating layers of the tree that carry nutrients and infesting the tree with a fungus.

The project is targeting to remove approximately 145 decaying whitebark pine trees per acre, starting in July 2017. Removing the infested trees will improve overall forest health and decrease the risk of high intensity wildland fires. “Public water supplies are at stake, as are fisheries, which affect tourism and people’s livelihoods”, stated Dr. Mark Drew, CalTrout’s Eastern Sierra Manager. A large-scale, untamed forest fire would move fast through the dry pines, flushing large amounts of sediment into downstream watersheds that directly supply water to the June Lake Public Utility District and City of Los Angeles. Large sediment flushes into the waterways also pose a big threat to the wild Brown Trout that live there and their historic spawning grounds. Excess sediment obscures the gravel streambeds where trout lay their eggs, and decreases the amount of oxygen in the water that is necessary for a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

Over the course of this three-year project, CalTrout will be monitoring the site conditions pre- and post-tree removal using photo-print monitoring of the forest understory, working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Dr. Drew discussed how the non-infested trees will fare with the removal of damaged trees: “These trees are stressed due to drought. The best thing we can do is try to improve the health of the living trees and to remove dead ones to eliminate dead wood for the beetles.” The project does not involve clear-cutting large swaths of forest, which would impact wildlife, but rather selectively choosing dead and dying trees that pose the largest threat.

CalTrout will also develop and implement an education and outreach program centered on forest health and expected outcomes from this restoration project.

The overarching goal of the restoration project is to remove dying trees across 518 acres of National Forest System lands over five years. CalTrout is pursuing additional funding to accomplish this, and intends to leverage funds to implement further scientific research to measure long-term ecosystem changes and determine best alternatives for biomass utilization. How the removed trees will be used is still under consideration; some will go to local wood use, commercial firewood, and biofuel.

Photo by Dr. Mark Drew