What the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is doing to a Grass Valley, Calif., timber company accused of illegally felling 49 old-growth trees is "absolutely ludicrous," says Jim Mitchell, the general manager of Homewood Mountain Resort.
And the agency fining and pursuing a lawsuit against Menasha Corp. has sent a bad message to loggers considering work at Lake Tahoe, Mitchell said.
"Now we have companies such as Menasha, much less smaller logging companies, who won't touch this basin," he added.
Menasha, being the most reputable and well-respected timber company Homewood could find, in 1998 completed an over-the-snow forest-thinning project at the West Shore ski resort. In 1999 the company worked on 113-acres of neighboring land belonging to the Tahoe City Public Utility District. After the latter project, however, TRPA said the company had illegally cut down 49 old-growth trees while violating some 80 conditions of the agency's permit.
TRPA's governing board last month decided to fine Menasha $160,000 and has a lawsuit pending against the company if it is not paid.
Menasha has long disputed what has happened. Company officials have said there was miscommunication between the loggers and TRPA and admitted to some violations. However, the company maintains its work benefited the forest and that a civil penalty of $160,000 was uncalled for.
Trees of 30 inches in diameter or more are likely more than 100 years old and are protected by TRPA's old-growth ordinance. On the Homewood project, the work permit did not specify that trees of that size which were to be felled needed to be pointed out. On the TCPUD project, a tree-by-tree inspection was needed.
Menasha, according to TRPA, pointed out only three trees of that size when 52 were later cut down. Menasha officials, however, have said they thought TRPA was aware of the other trees and had not objected.
The trees, according to the timber company, were all dead, dying or hazardous, and their removal has helped the health of the forest.
Homewood's Mitchell said he wholeheartedly agrees with Menasha, saying that changing the rules on the company and not doing adequate inspections of the project are TRPA's errors.
"Now we've got this raging controversy over what I believe is simply TRPA not doing its job," Mitchell said.
The Homewood tree removal was to be a three-year project. Menasha, which hires subcontractors to do the actual logging, is having difficulty finding workers to finish the job.
"The problem we're having now is we have a timber harvest plan ready to go but we can't find anybody to come in and do the work," said Mark Salyer, California administrative manager for Menasha, which has extensive timber operations in the West. "We subcontract out the logging, but we can't get anyone to come into the basin. They're scared to death."
TRPA officials say that is not true.
"We haven't seen a decline in the amount of permit applications or forestry-related work," said John Marshall, TRPA attorney. "I think most people realize they just need to play by the rules. We have numerous, numerous timber-harvest and forest-health-enhancement projects in the basin. If you do it right, there's no problem.
"When we fine someone for a violation when building a home, does that mean no one will be building homes in the basin anymore? No," he added.
Dave Roberts, assistant executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, has long followed the issue and disagrees that the forest is healthier without the trees.
Regarding environmental efforts at Tahoe, Roberts said, cutting down old-growth trees is "the last thing we should be doing first."
"We think TRPA was being fairly lenient with its fine," he said.
Besides the 49 old-growth trees, other alleged violations included hauling 16 loads of trees away before getting permission and littering a stream zone with debris from the tree harvest. At a quasi-judicial hearing before TRPA's legal committee in January, an official from the California Department of Forestry testified the stream area was cleaned up to his satisfaction. And the dirt roads in the forest were not damaged by the tree-filled trucks, the potential for damage being the reason the loggers were supposed to get permission.
An estimated 5 percent of the basin's forests are old growth.