Tiny Bark Beetle Laying Waste to Tall Trees in County’s Forests

Times Staff Writer

Smaller than a pencil tip, mightier than a forest fire, the bark beetle is wreaking havoc in San Diego County.

And state and federal agencies are standing by, unwilling and unable to mess with Mother Nature.

State forestry experts explain that the beetle infestation, which already has caused panic on the coast by attacking the rare Torrey pines, has traveled inland to ravage pine forests around Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, Idyllwild and Palomar Mountain. Now the small borers are rife in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and Cleveland National Forest.


Meeting in Julian

The Big Bear-Lake Arrowhead, Idyllwild and Palomar Mountain areas already have been designated “zones of infestation,” which allows state and federal forestry crews to join with private landowners in eradication measures.

Recently, U. S. Forest Service representatives met with Julian-area property owners to outline the beetle problem and to explain the possible remedial and preventive measures to fight the tiny pests. The options are few and expensive.

Drought, fires and beetles have combined to scar the greenery gracing the Palomar slopes and to polka-dot the varied foliage of the 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park with brown. To forestry staff members, the decimation is a form of natural selection which, in the long run, will make the woodlands healthier.

Eric Oldar, a regional service forester, was heartened by the turnout at the Julian informational meeting May 5. Some of the other sessions (including one on Palomar Mountain) have found few private landowners in attendance and fewer willing to pay 50% of the costs of fighting the beetle. But at Julian, which is surrounded by the Cleveland National Forest, more than 100 attended the May 5 session--a prelude to a decision next month by the state Board of Forestry on whether that area should be added to the infestation zones.

Undergrowth Thined

If a zone is established, Julian-area residents will be asked to share the costs of the beetle battle, Oldar said. At times, prison labor is used to thin dense undergrowth and fell diseased trees. At other times, private contractors are hired to cut dead timber and to sell it as firewood. (The dead trees cannot spread the beetle infestation because the insects already have left the dying tree.)

The thinning does not stop the beetle’s spread, but it gives the remaining trees more breathing room and a chance to recover from a weakened condition which crowding and lack of water has brought on, Oldar explains.


“What most people do not understand is that the bark beetle is nature’s natural thinning agent,” Oldar said. Beetles attack older and weaker trees, boring through the bark to the heart of the tree, blocking the arteries which normally carry water and sap.

“By the time that the needles begin to turn brown, it is too late. The tree is doomed and the beetles have left,” presumably to find another victim, which may be miles away, he explained. The small insects can be carried on the wind for long distances.

Beetle strategy is different on private lands and on federal lands, Oldar stressed. In federal and state parks and forests, the beetle is allowed to do his damage unchecked on the theory that the natural thinning is simply an example of survival of the fittest.

On private lands, however, the California Department of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service agents bow to the wishes of the owners to preserve trees around their homes, even though it is contradictory to the laws of nature.

Little Ammunition

“I understand how people feel. They moved into the forest to live in a forest, and they don’t want anything to change it, at least not for a few decades. We are trying to educate them about the natural forces at work,” Oldar said.

There is little ammunition with which to fight the bark beetle, Jack Shu, district superintendent of Cuyamaca Rancho and Palomar state parks, acknowledged.


There are sprays that are said to protect uninfected trees by sealing their bark so the beetles cannot bore in. There are strong insecticides which, when applied, are said to kill the beetles when they emerge to migrate, Shu said. But, he added, the protective coating lasts only a few months, hardly ever through the entire beetle season, and, although the insecticide may cut down on the beetle population, it can do nothing for the doomed tree to which it is applied. Both are expensive and require licensed personnel to apply, Shu said.

In the parks, rangers have attempted to preserve the beauty around campgrounds and other spots frequented by visitors, removing beetle-infested trees and thinning the susceptible undergrowth, Shu said. The efforts have had little perceptible effect, he conceded.

Forest rangers on the federal level have even less flexibility in attempting to stem the infestation, he added. National forest plans impose even stricter regulations against manipulating natural phenomena such as beetles or fires, he said. So far, state and federal forestry forces have cooperated with each other, despite their different marching orders, Shu said.

“Only if a sure-fire cure was found for bark beetle infestations,” would there be a clash similar to that which surfaced after the disastrous Yellowstone National Park fires over whether to let natural forces take their course or to try to stem the blazes to preserve the park’s natural beauty, he explained.

Spreading Fast

Rain, which has been on the scanty side for the past five years, would be the best possible medication for the county’s forests. Adequate rainfall would not kill the beetles, Shu said, but it would strengthen the stands of conifers (cone-bearing trees) which the beetles attack, making them less vulnerable and more able to fight off beetle attack.

How many acres of forest have been hit by the bark beetle? Shu said no one knows because the infestation is spreading at a rapid rate, and last year’s estimates are as stale as last week’s news.


On the brighter side, the beetle is selective in its ravages, attacking only conifers--Coulter pines, ponderosa and, to a lesser extent, sugar pine. So, even if the beetles achieved a 100% kill rate--which is very unlikely--the forests of Palomar and Cleveland and Cuyamaca would still be green with a variety of trees, Shu said. For the private landowners who showed up 100 or so strong in Julian, “I’m not sure we offered a whole lot of help to them,” Shu said. “There is not much we can do.”

Perhaps the best advice that Shu can offer to the forest dwellers is to “water your trees, but not too much because that can cause root rot, and pray for rain.”