If you love the forest, you have to kill trees
June 29, 2007
As I look at images from South Lake Tahoe of smoldering ashes that used to be homes of people I know, I think back a few years to the words a fire captain friend of mine said to me.
“It’s not if we have a catastrophic wildfire in the Tahoe Basin, but when.”
“When” happened last week, and “when” will happen again.
There is no way to prevent forest fires. They are a natural part of forests, and have been long before human beings came along and tried to put them out.
Many of our forests suffer from a century of misguided attempts to help them. It wasn’t until fairly recently that forest managers truly understood that fire is essential to clean and renew this environment.
What we are left with are forests that are overgrown; suffering from drought, disease and pests; a firetrap with people living in it.
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We can’t go back and change history. The small fires that were a natural part of the environment a hundred years ago become catastrophic infernos in today’s overgrown forests. Humans created this problem, and humans will have to solve it.
But we are trapped in the middle of a battle between two extremes.
First we have the urban tree huggers who – excuse the cliché – can’t see the forest for the trees. They are the ones who think that any cutting of any tree is a crime.
On the other side, we have people who look at forests and see nothing but board feet and dollar signs.
In reality, one side wants to kill the forests with love, the other with chain saws.
And while these two minorities fight it out, the forests suffer, as do those people who live in or near them.
Combine their war with a government that is unresponsive to the people it serves, and you get hundreds of Tahoe homes lying in ashes.
The finger-pointing season is in full swing in the Tahoe Basin, and the main target is the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. The TRPA is the poster child for organizations that are created for a good cause, but end up making the problem worse.
TRPA is a bi-state federal agency, which means it’s pretty much accountable to no one. Its governing board is set up in such a way that it almost guarantees that a majority of its members do not live in the basin. It’s a lot easier for politicians to make rules that they themselves don’t have to follow.
For instance, a few years ago, the agency pushed scenic regulations that would require some homeowners to actually plant more trees, in order to hide their homes from the lake. As if the Tahoe Basin needs more trees.
To TRPA’s defense, the agency does allow for homeowners to create at least some defensible space on their properties, and many homeowners have not done so, including some of those whose homes burned last week. The TRPA also can’t force the U.S. Forest Service or the states of California and Nevada to clean up their lands, which make up a majority of the basin.
But as my fire chief friend told me back then, if he started taking out all the trees he felt needed to go to protect his community, TRPA would have a fit.
It may be that a third, or even half of the trees in the Tahoe Basin need to be taken out to get the forest back on the road to good health. But no one is going to come out and propose that, because the TRPA would never allow it.
Some middle ground must be found to allow forests to be thinned out, to allow loggers to supply the wood products we all use, while preserving the forests we love, and making them safer for the populations that live in their shadows.
The people who live in the forests also need to do their part. Drive through just about any Tahoe neighborhood, and you will see houses lacking in defensible space. Some have wood roofs covered in pine needles, an invitation for destruction. That has to stop.
There will always be forest fires. Those people living in forests can take precautions, but they also must realize that their homes could burn along with the trees.
That is the price for living in paradise.