The new Stanislaus National Forest supervisor has been on the job since October and he and his family have spent every weekend exploring the area he calls “heaven sent.”

Jason Kuiken said they “can’t believe our luck.”

“Sonora Pass a couple weeks ago, Pinecrest. It was nice to be there in late October. It was sunny and gorgeous. We’ve been up the Highway 4 corridor a ways, to Calaveras Big Trees,” he said.

Kuiken, 38, is a native of Wausau, Wisconsin, and he grew up fishing, canoeing and camping in the Sylvania Wilderness, part of the Ottawa National Forest in northwest Michigan. From age 4 to 18, he also went hiking and camping with an uncle in the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests in Colorado.

He said he’s been a Green Bay football fan all his life. Now he’s working in the home of state of Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who was born in Chico.

Kuiken went on to study natural resources management at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and environmental science and policy at Columbia University in New York City.

Turning point

A turning point for Kuiken came when he attended an international water conference, where he felt comfortable with scientists talking to scientists and realized he wanted to take science to a policy level with the Forest Service.

“From my early experience in national forests, I wanted to try to work with that multi-use mandate,” Kuiken said. “Everything from timber to ranching to minerals to recreation.”

From New York he went to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Budget and Program Analysis in Washington, D.C. His office was near the Washington Monument, and he said he learned a lot about budgets and dealing with Congress during his time in the nation’s capital.

Kuiken has also worked as a district ranger in the Chippewa National Forest in northern Minnesota, and for the Rocky Mountain Regional Office in Lakewood, Colorado, where he focused on a mountain pine beetle epidemic triggered by drought in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

He worked most recently as deputy supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in central Washington state.

Kuiken said the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Rockies has resulted in 400 million dead trees in Wyoming and Colorado.

Strategy for dealing with infestation and standing dead trees in Rocky Mountain forests is the same as it is here in the Central Sierra: secure funding to remove dead trees near roads and developed recreation areas. Pockets of dead forest unreachable by roads, with scores of dead trees per acre, are a primary wildfire threat in the Rockies and in the Central Sierra.

Faced with the same challenges here, Kuiken says working with local stakeholders to improve forest health is his top priority.

“All of these communities in this area rely on the health of the national forest. The counties of Tuolumne, Calaveras, Mariposa and Alpine, they all rely on tourism and recreation,” he said.

Improving health in an overgrown Stanislaus National Forest will mean removing a lot of fuel from the landscape, then replanting and regrowing the forest, Kuiken said. Like it always is for the budget-strapped Forest Service, securing funding for fuel removal projects is going to be a major hurdle.

But he hopes a coalition of forest visitors, local and state government agencies, the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians, and timber industry partners like Sierra Pacific Industries and Pacific Ultrapower Chinese Station will continue to make progress on fuel reduction projects.

Tree mortality

The mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Rockies, ongoing for more than a decade, is worse than what Forest Service biologists estimated statewide for California a year ago, when they said aerial surveys showed more than 100 million dead trees in drought-stricken forests up and down the Sierra Nevada since 2010.

Biologists are doing data analysis right now on their most recent surveys and expect to have a new estimate in the next two weeks, Stephanie L. Gomes, a tree mortality response team leader with Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region 5 in Vallejo, said Tuesday.

The Central Sierra’s wet winter last year has helped strengthen some trees, but scientists expect tree mortality counts to continue to increase this year and next, Gomes with Pacific Southwest Region 5 said.

“After this severe drought, it typically takes one to two years for trees to recover resiliency and resistance to bark beetle attacks,” Gomes said.

Data analysts studying tree mortality in the Golden State do not have a typical average or a normal ratio they expect to find this year.

“We just know it takes time for trees to recover their natural resistance to beetles,” Gomes said.

Forest Service officials in Colorado said two years ago the mountain pine beetle epidemic began to show signs of waning, with aerial surveys in 2014 showing new acreage infested by mountain pine beetles falling to levels not seen since the outbreak began in the 1990s.

Kuiken says he and his wife, Sarah, hope to stick around here at least long enough to see their preschool and elementary school age boys start high school in the Sonora area. The last forest supervisor was here in Sonora less than three years. The previous top administrator for the 1,400-square-mile forest served from 2008 to 2014.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.

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