San Francisco’s beloved 350-acre Camp Mather in the Sierra Nevada mountains is suffering from a bark beetle infestation, prompting the recent removal of 1,500 trees.
Phil Ginsburg, head of the Recreation and Park Department, which has overseen the park since 1923, declared a public safety emergency in February to bring in a tree removal company to cut down the trees around the main camp and general store in time for the busy summer season.
While the tree clearing finished May 1, the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee is still required to vote to approve of the emergency declaration, which it is scheduled to do on Thursday.
The tree clearing needed to occur before the busy summer season begins May 28, or The City would likely have had to cancel the summer season due to the threat to public safety. About 6,000 camp-goers — which amounts to some 500 people weekly for 11 weeks — stay on the campgrounds, only after being selected through a lottery.
The bark beetle infestation has killed “widespread strands of these huge” conifer pines, which include the Ponderosa Pine, Jeffrey Pine, Sugar Pine, Incense Cedar and Fir, which soar into the skies up to 100 feet and are as thick as four feet.
“Dead trees of this size pose an extreme public safety hazard as their root system no longer holds them in place and they shed huge, thick and heavy sheaths of bark which fall as their trunks desiccate,” the proposal reads. “Once a conifer tree has been infested by bark beetles the only remedy is to completely remove the tree.”
Ginsburg had entered into a contract with Groveland-based Crook Logging, Inc., for tree removal and disposal, which cost The City $1.6 million. Work included temporarily lifting cabins out of the area of some tree clearing to avoid damage and the use of helicopters to airlift some of the cut-down dead trees from the area. The company began work in March and finished May 1.
“It’s been a Herculean effort they managed to pull off” in the short time frame, said Joe Litehiser, a longtime visitor of the camp and a representative of the Friends of Camp Mather.
He added, “It is sad” to see the large trees die, but said nature has a way of working itself out and the younger growth will have a chance to enjoy more sunshine.
Litehiser said there still remain “some big monsters up there … that are hanging in there” around the Jack Spring dining hall that, over time, have become about as dear as “members of the family.”
He said the tree removal focused on the area around the main camp site, but figures the department would need to set its sights on more tree removal at a later date.
The source of the funding includes $667,000 from 2012 Urban Forestry Program bonds and $933,000 from Rec and Park’s capital budget for tree contracts, according to a report from budget analyst Harvey Rose.
The tree removal plan was in the works since at least November 2016, when the department’s certified arborist and chief urban forester inspected trees at Camp Mather, concluding their work in January.
The department informally solicited bids from logging contractors to perform the work and had three responses, including Crook Logging.
The latest tree clearing is in addition to tree removal that occurred at Camp Mather in April and May of 2016, when 350 infested trees were removed.
The beetle infestation is a problem that has hit California statewide as result of years-long drought conditions. The U.S. Forest Service estimates 102 million trees have died in California since 2010.
Bark beetles are as tiny as a piece of cooked rice. While healthy trees generally resist bark beetles through production of resinous pitch that can drown and “pitch out” the beetles, when trees are distressed in drought conditions, that pitch production decreases and leaves the trees defenseless against the insects, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.