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Dying fir, pine trees dot horizon

Chet Behling, state stewardship forester, shows aerial mapping of trees infested with bark beetles and explains the agency’s efforts to help landowners fight the problem.

Photo by Mark Gibson
Chet Behling, state stewardship forester, shows aerial mapping of trees infested with bark beetles and explains the agency’s efforts to help landowners fight the problem.


The number of dying trees in Wasco County, pictured above, has grown to 12,300 acres in 2016, and Oregon State Forestry Department officials are urging proactive efforts to stop the spread of bark beetles. Contributed photo

It is not unusual to see orange, rust and brown foliage dotting the landscape during the fall months, but when evergreens start changing colors, it’s indicative of a problem, Oregon Forestry Department officials say.

Chet Behling, stewardship forester for ODF’s office in The Dalles, said the agency protects about 148,000 acres from fire in Wasco County. This year, 12,300 acres were mapped as being affected by drought-related stress and/or bark beetles, he said.

That is nearly double the 6,700 acres affected in 2015 and ODF is now asking that landowners with tracts of Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines help fight the problem by removing damaged and dying trees.

“The affected areas vary greatly in severity,” said Behling. “Some may have 50 dead trees per acre or more, while others may have only a couple dead trees per acre.”

Heightened levels of mortality have been found by aerial surveys from Mosier to the White River, with trees between Eight Mile Creek and Fifteenmile Creek being hit the hardest.

Behling said Oregon has experienced higher than average temperatures and drought conditions during the last three years. Less water and higher heat has weakened the defensive mechanisms in trees, making them vulnerable to invasion by bark beetles.

“While tree mortality from beetles is not uncommon, the number of trees dying is above average for this area,” he said.

There are three stages a tree moves through before and after a bark beetle attack, according to an ODF report.

When the tree is green and healthy, it moves water from the soil into the atmosphere. Once the tree is infested with beetles, it dies and moves into the “red phase” where there are still needles, but they don’t receive moisture from the soil. At this stage they become fuel for wildfire.

The third and final stage finds the tree losing needles and the trunk decomposing. The tree eventually falls. It takes a few years of drought, and the attendant lack of enough precipitation during the wetter months to overcome damage, for the tree to be unable to “reset,” said Behling. When that happens, he said the beetle population builds enough to cause serious damage to forests.

Some forest landowners are taking proactive steps to correct the problem, said Behling, by salvaging dead and dying trees. He said if salvage is done immediately after the needles begin turning color, lumber will retain some market value at the mill, which can offset the costs of removal.

“Many landowners plan to burn logging slash piles this fall or winter to stop beetle flight in the spring,” he said. “We’ve got to get those dead and dying trees out of there because, in addition to creating a safety issue, fighting wildfires create huge costs.”

In addition to stopping the spread of insects, Behling said actively managing forest lands can reduce fuels so there is less opportunity for wildfires to sweep across the landscape.

Selectively thinning overstocked and diseased stands of trees creates a healthy growing environment for the remaining trees.

Revenue gained from managed harvests can help finance other projects to enhance forest land, such as replacing old culverts or planting new seedlings.

Behling warns that, if drought conditions persist, it is likely the situation will worsen and more hillsides will turn from green to red.

“We want to encourage landowners to manage forest and we can provide them with technical assistance with those efforts,” he said.

He said ODF must be notified at least 15 days before a landowner harvests trees in order to review the area for natural resources that may require protection.

Behling also said fire tools, a water trailer or truck and other equipment is required if people work during fire season.

For more information call ODF at 541-296-4626.


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