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Trees die as drought takes root

For years, it’s been affectionately known as the Emerald Forest.

But these days, much of the green is missing from this once verdant spot within the Castaic Lake State Recreation Area

Dead and dying trees, some toppled by recent high winds, have replaced the deeply shaded pine grove that once graced the beginning of the park’s West Ridge Trail.

It’s one of the most visible signs of an unprecedented tree die-off caused by more than four years of drought in Los Angeles County and around the state.

Thousands of trees, weakened by drought and attacked by bark beetles, are dying throughout the 9,000-acre park, part of Los Angeles County's sprawling regional park system.

While the tree die-off at Castaic Lake is dramatic, it’s not an isolated problem. Crews are working to remove dead trees countywide, at regional parks and other facilities—to keep people and property safe from falling trees, and to reduce fire risk. The county Fire Department already has removed hundreds of trees from Castaic Lake and Bonelli Regional Park, and expects to remove many more.

“This is devastating...Hundreds and hundreds of trees have to go down," said Guillermo Najar of the county Department of Parks and Recreation. "It's a bummer because we can plant new trees but they're not going to have the impact that the trees have now.”

Los Angeles County's urban forest is just part of a larger California eco-system reeling from the effects of the drought—and likely to face new challenges if El Nino’s heavy rains roll in as expected this winter.

Gov. Jerry Brown recently proclaimed a state of emergency to address the estimated 22 million trees that have died so far, and the millions more expected to succumb statewide because of the ongoing drought.

Outside of county parks, dead or dying trees on parkways and medians in unincorporated areas are being removed within 24 hours if they pose an immediate safety risk, and within four weeks if they are less severely compromised. (Of the roughly 170,000 median and parkway trees managed by the Department of Public Works, about 1.5%—or 2,500—are deemed to be in poor condition, while 14.5% are in fair shape and 84% are rated good to excellent.)

The Department of Beaches and Harbors also has inventoried the trees it manages in Marina del Rey and is undertaking trimming and other pro-active maintenance in advance of expected winter rain.

Drought knows no boundaries, of course, and trees on private and public land throughout the region are affected as well. In the Santa Monica Mountains, for instance, reports of oak tree distress have been widespread. Volunteers recently tagged more than 100 coastal live oaks as part of an effort to keep tabs on the trees’ health as the drought continues.

Rosi Dagit, a senior conservation biologist with the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains, said that even the locally-beloved Grandmother Oak, which has been growing in Topanga State Park for more than 300 years, is in deep distress.

“She looks so bad. It’s so scary. We are doing life support. We’ve organized a bucket brigade, if you will. People are taking buckets of water up to her as they go by,” Dagit said.

In contrast to struggling native plants like Grandmother Oak, the hardest-hit trees at Castaic Lake are non-native Aleppo pines planted more than a half-century ago, when the county-run park was established as part of the State Water Project. Park superintendent Lori Bennett said that 300 trees were recently removed and 500 will be taken out soon.

Bennett, who has been with the Parks Department for more than 30 years and at Castaic Lake for nearly a decade, surveyed the damage recently and reflected on the changed landscape that future generations will see.

“In the years to come,” Bennett said, “the scenery around here is never going to be the same.”

Residents who spot tree problems can report them on The Works, the county’s one-stop service app for iPhone and Android.