- KENTFIELD, Calif. Strange
yellows, browns and grays pepper the dense forests of Mount Tamalpais,
intruders in the natural green abundance of this scenic knob across the
Golden Gate from San Francisco.
- They are the colors of thousands of dead and dying oaks,
stricken in unprecedented numbers by a mysterious pathogen, a killer that's
ravaging one of California's signature native trees from Mendocino to Santa
- The malady's cause has proved elusive, and researchers
and homeowners are stunned by its lethal speed. Oaks and tanoaks, indigenous
to 10 million acres of the Pacific Coast as far north as Oregon, are cascading
from healthy green to dead brown in a few weeks.
- Scientists fear that a foreign invader might be at work,
an interloper like the fungi that wiped out America's chestnuts and elms
a generation ago.
- "We're trying to rule that out, but that's what
I'm most afraid it is," says Rick Standiford, who is associate dean
of forestry at the University of California-Berkeley. "We're worried
that it's an introduced organism the oaks have no built-in immunity to."
- Last week, Marin County declared an emergency and asked
the state for $3 million to fight what has been dubbed "sudden oak
death." Homeowners across the county are struggling to save the trees,
many more than 100 years old, and are paying thousands of dollars to have
dead ones cut down and disposed of.
- The county fire marshal is planning for a potentially
devastating fire season because dead oaks can become a dangerous fuel source
on a burning hillside.
- Water district officials worry that with hillsides thinned
from dying oaks, accelerated runoff from winter storms will degrade watersheds
and hasten the buildup of sediment in reservoirs.
- Ecologists say other species in the forest are at risk
because they depend on the dominant oaks, prolific producers of the acorns
that are a key food source for many birds and mammals. Aggressive, non-native
weeds also could invade the ground where oaks grew.
- "Oaks are the pillar, the cornerstone of the food
chain in this part of California and the coast ranges," says Dennis
Odion, a vegetation ecologist with the Marin Municipal Water District.
- Horticulturists and foresters have only recently become
alarmed. When sudden oak death appeared in Marin in 1995, it seemed to
spread slowly. Experts thought it was a short-term phenomenon that nature
would overcome in due course.
- But during the past two years, oaks died in great numbers.
Homeowners began to lose trees as scores of dead oaks stood out on the
- The range of the problem has spread, and significant
losses have been reported in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Big Sur area
south of Monterey.
- "It's incredible, the numbers are staggering now,"
says Pavel Svihra, <FZ,1,0>a horticulturist with the University of
California Cooperative Extension. "It got out of hand. We somehow
underestimated the whole syndrome."
- Teams of plant pathologists, horticulturists and entomologists
are racing to find a cause. They're using aerial remote-sensing technology
to map the syndrome's progression and studying tissue samples in the lab.
They're monitoring 20 plots containing more than 500 trees, but the prognosis
is grim: 40% to 50% of them are expected to die this year.
- Homeowners are asked to inspect their trees regularly.
Live oaks are evergreens with rounded, leathery leaves. Unlike the ramrod
straight deciduous varieties, these oak trees are crooked and commercially
- Often, the first visible symptom is "bleeding"
-- thick globules of sap emerging from the bark around the base of the
trunk. Then a fine sawdust-like froth trickles down the bark, the waste
from thousands of Ambrosia beetles that have bored inside the tree.
- The beetles, each no bigger than a grain of rice, host
a fungus that enables them to digest wood. Soon, the oak's internal tissue
layer that transports water up from the roots is choked off, and the tree
begins to die. The presence of a second, naturally occurring fungus is
seen in the form of dull-green, dome-like structures on the bark.
- What confounds scientists is that this common scenario
is by no means universal.
- Sometimes, they find trees with bleeding but no external
fungus, sometimes with beetles but no bleeding, sometimes with just the
- They know that the beetles will finish off the tree,
but they don't know why beetles suddenly appear. One theory is that they
only attack trees that have been weakened by another, unknown agent.
- The role the external fungus plays is not known.
- Healthy trees appear to escape attack, though scientists
worry that with so many dead trees in the forest, even healthy specimens
might be vulnerable.
- Stressed urban trees, whose roots often have been cut
and altered in the construction of streets and buildings, might be the
most inviting targets.
- Mature live oaks, trees that architects design around,
can boost a property's value 10% or more. "They're not only something
we enjoy, that the critters enjoy, but they're one of the reasons we're
here," says Patricia Burton, whose hillside home here had 19 oaks
on three-fifths of an acre. "They're a real asset."
- Burton has spent $6,000 to have six trees taken out.
Homeowners who don't remove trees might contribute to the spread of the
syndrome, experts say.
- Logs from cut trees don't simply go into the fireplace.
The county wants the wood stacked outside and covered tightly with clear
plastic for six months so the sun can generate enough heat and humidity
to kill the beetles.
- Homeowners who spot bleeding might be able to save their
trees. Early insecticide spraying appears to keep the beetles at bay. "But
we're not sure if we're saving them, or just keeping them alive awhile
longer," horticulturist Svihra says.
- As for the true source of the killer, at this point scientists
have little more than theories. Air pollution and weather changes, such
as drought in the early 1990s followed by several wetter-than-normal years,
are potential factors. Evidence now seems to dispel the idea that the syndrome
- Marin Fire Marshal Keith Parker says he's looking at
a decade of elevated fire risk before dead trees fall and decay. And maybe
longer if the oaks, which are more resistant to fire, are replaced by other
trees that burn more readily.
- The last big fire in Marin, in 1995, burned 12,000 acres
around Point Reyes and destroyed 48 homes. "It's tough to protect
structures even under good conditions," Parker says. "This is
just another major problem in an already complex situation."
- The tree lovers and forest protectors who won battles
for laws to protect live oaks now see a catastrophe looming on the coastal
- "Live oaks are the kingpins, widespread, much revered
and very, very beautiful," says David Chipping, vice president of
the California Native Plant Society. "Losing them would essentially
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