Our long, dramatic encounter with the bark beetle has come to an end. At last.
It’s been well over a year now since the beetles came, conquered, and left destruction in their wake in our Sierra Nevada mountain home. We’re lucky, of course; compared to communities farther south, we barely suffered. Still, we’ve spent the last 18 months on a torturous homeowner odyssey: learning the telltale signs of a beetle strike, working with multiple forestry agencies to fell over a dozen 100-foot+ ponderosa pines, spending late nights online reading up on logging regulations and permit processes, dealing with the gargantuan mess left behind (through the record-setting winter of 2016-17, no less), facing off with shitty neighbors, growing closer to good ones…
And really learning a lot about trees in the process.
Now that it’s over (knock on wood), it’s kind of amazing to look back on it all, so I’m going to do that (some day when I’m feeling particularly ineffective, this is gonna be a great confidence booster)…
Our community news in Arnold reports that bark beetles are in our forests. Upon inspection, however, our trees are green and healthy.
While relaxing on the deck on the 4th of July, I notice little pink blobs on the trunk of a massive ponderosa pine.
Upon walking down the hill, I confirm there are little pink blobs on EVERY ponderosa trunk on our property – front and back (though the trees are still green).
We have bark beetle.
And so does everyone else on the street.
Even after enlisting the expert help of the most unlikely arborist savior possible and devising an exceptional plan to do battle with the beetle, we return to our cabin just three weeks later to discover…
The beetle-struck trees are all dead – just over a dozen of them.
We join forces with our neighbors to quickly have the county remove all everything they’re responsible for on road frontage. Then, with great daily determination, we begin navigating the nightmare that is PG&E’s removal process for those trees still within reach of power lines. Almost all our trees and our neighbor, Nick’s, trees qualify for free cutting and “debris removal”, saving us TENS OF THOUSANDS of dollars.
We pat ourselves on the back REPEATEDLY for buying a property close to the road. And the power line.
We receive the first signs in the mail indicating our property is winding it’s way through the PG&E system. Eventually, logging tax info arrives; the necessary paperwork is filed to grant ACRT a 3-acre exemption to remove our trees.
We know we’re getting close.
Neighbor Nick emails us with the big news on Thanksgiving weekend:
Our dead trees are “GONE!”
That is – they’ve been cut. But they are, unfortunately, very much still on the property:
And they will stay there. For another year.
While celebrating Cabin Christmas, we meet several tree crews working on the street on debris removal – hauling off the timber ACRT crews have cut.
One crew visits our house and assures us they will be back in three days to pick up our timber.
We never see them again.
I do some desperate research into alternatives for how to get the logs removed. None of it inspires very much confidence.
Arnold experiences its wettest January on record. No tree crews return to our house.
I do more desperate research into removal alternatives. It’s still not looking good.
Arnold experiences its wettest February on record. No tree crews return to our house (it’s okay; it’s flooding now, anyway).
Arnold experiences its wettest March on record. No tree crews return to our house (it’s okay; we’re too busy cleaning up from the flood to worry about cleaning up the trees).
Arnold experiences its wettest April on record, but –
There are signs the tree crews are returning.
Spring has sprung. The sun has returned. We manage to secure Alfredo and his crew, our regular contractors, to come clear our defensible space around the logs that (not surprisingly) didn’t magically disappear when all the snow was falling.
We start to imagine what it might be like to live with the logs on our property. Forever.
We take some hikes and try to appreciate nature’s cycle. The wet winter has stalled the beetle epidemic; the forest is green again, the decay has been washed away, and a new chapter is beginning.
With summer in full swing, we decide to start relentlessly badgering Ryan for updates on the tree crews’ activities.
We bump into him at the Lube Room one night. He deeply regrets giving us his cell phone number.
We occasionally encounter tree crewmen on Mustang Road. We try to entice them to come to our house and take our logs with offers of whiskey and barbecue.
It doesn’t work.
At long last, I manage to successfully accelerate our case with PG&E and get in direct contact with the crew actually assigned to remove our logs.
I pester them every week for an update:
Linda, the scheduler.
Andrew, the crew lead.
Matt, the foreman.
The team at UPE is now thoroughly convinced they must not let these logs reach the one-year mark on the ground. It’s clearly a matter of life and death (I’m good).
But we reach a snag: there is no way to get them off our property other than by going through our neighbor’s property. We don’t know him – he owns 75 acres of open forest land behind us.
So we reach out to him to ask if we can use his private, dirt, fire break road.
HE IS A HUGE ASSHOLE.
Andrew from UPE meets with the asshole neighbor to try and determine an acceptable way to move the logs through his property and out to the nearest paved road.
A plan is reached.
The crew gathers all the logs in the back of the property into a mammoth pile on our property line, in easy transport distance to the neighbor’s private road.
But the plan stalls. The UPE trailer is too large to get up and down the road.
Meanwhile, there are still five dead trees on our property that didn’t qualify for PG&E removal. I contract with Nate’s Tree Service to remove them once the existing logs are out of the way; Nate Jr. will also need to go up the fire road. Solving this problem is of the utmost importance.
The neighbor could not care less. He complains that he personally knows Nate Sr. and “he’s a tweaker”.
I construct a neighbor voodoo doll made of ponderosa pine slash and burn it in the campfire.
Andrew spends the entire month looking for a crew and trailer small enough to get the logs up the neighbor’s road. The neighbor won’t compromise; there’s no other path through his property.
Eventually, Eddie + Johnny arrive with their equipment to get the job done.
I’m so freaked out at the site of their Bobcat Skid-Steer parked on our septic leach field, however, that I can’t stick around to watch the work; we escape up the mountain and over the pass to camp off the grid in the eastern sierra instead.
I let the tree gods take the wheel.
When we return, the logs appear to be gone.
We celebrate – too early. The neighbor complains there are logs that have been staged and left on his property.
Johnny comes back and hauls them away.
We celebrate again.
Nate and his crew cut the remaining five trees on the back of the property.
The neighbor is irate. There are logs that have been staged and left on his property.
Nate comes back and hauls them away.
The neighbor is STILL irate. There is still a “mess” on his property.
We want to tell him to GO F$@% HIMSELF; we are living in a veritable toilet of tree debris at this point.
Instead, Johnny comes back AGAIN and takes a little more debris (because we can’t tell whose mess is whose any more, and he is more agreeable than Nate). Then, we hire Alfredo to come clear EVERY bit of debris left on the neighbor’s property AND ours.
And he does (it takes him and his entire crew three solid days of hard, back-breaking labor).
Our other neighbor, Karen, comments that Alfredo is a saint.
And when we finally see our new, thinned forest, all cleaned up and ready for a new era, we literally weep.
We both agree:
It’s better than before.
We reflect on the long road to get here, but we feel good – about all that we’ve learned, about how the crisis has brought us closer to our community, and about the fact that we’ve taken care of the land the right way. We did what needed to be done, and it’s ready for new growth.
Hopefully we’ll see the new version of this forest in its full glory in our lifetime. But if not, we did our part.
We reminded the neighbor that he STILL HAS A STAND OF DEAD TREES TO CUT.