The recent National Association of Counties award to Tuolumne County for handling the truly devastating and risky dead tree crisis is something all residents should find praiseworthy and comforting.
Each year, the association honors innovative county government programs across the nation in 18 categories. That would be areas such as administration, arts preservation, criminal justice, most anything you'd expect a county government to be involved in.
In all, 605 entries from 108 counties in 29 states were honored.
Tuolumne County's award was in the risk and emergency management area, where four other California counties were also honored. San Diego County captured nine awards on its own, San Bernardino two, Riverside one and Los Angeles one.
Clearly all those other counties are much larger – with much greater resources - than Tuolumne County, population 55,000. What's also interesting is almost all the other awards were for planning for risk, not actually having danger staring at them like hungry wolves.
The tree crisis was, of course, unprecedented. But Tuolumne County acted swiftly, declaring a state of emergency in September 2015. County leaders saw precisely what was coming. Bark beetles chewing their way through thirsty pine trees, essentially choking them to death.
The county directed its Office of Emergency Services to develop a plan, the Emergency Hazard Tree Mortality Program. Its job? Limit the possibility of fire that, if started, could light up the forest like an old Christmas tree. Also, the program needed to address the many dead trees that could fall and damage infrastructure.
Here's what the National Association of Counties had to say about what the OES did: “Tuolumne County OES has built an effective Tree Mortality Program from the ground up. OES has coordinated with multiple public and private agencies to remove thousands of dead trees from residential areas.”
The association notes the thousands of mailers sent out to residents to warn of danger, the hotline for people to report problems, development of an online form and holding workshops around the county. The county used federal, state and local money to get the trees cut down
“Tuolumne County was the first Northern California county to take significant steps to address the severe health and safety hazard posed by statewide pine tree die-off,” the association said in its announcement.
Thousands of dead and dying trees have been moved out of the way of power lines and roads in several neighborhoods and many more projects are planned. The state has covered 75 percent of the cost under the California Disaster Assistance Act, leaving the county to pay for the rest. The county has pledged $600,000 so far.
But there is much more to do. The most recent estimate is it will cost about $12 million over the next three years to cut down what's left, making the county's share $2.3 million.
The money comes from the county's reserve fund.
But here's the kicker. Tuolumne County's Office of Emergency Services has three employees.
“Despite its small size, Tuolumne County has become a leader to other counties for developing and implementing an effective Emergency Hazard Tree Mortality program,” the association said.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to show us just how innovative our public servants can be.
Problem solvers on a national scale.