KINGS BEACH - A Grass Valley-based timber company will fight a $160,000 fine imposed Wednesday by Lake Tahoe regulators for allegedly felling 49 old-growth trees.
Mark Salyer, California administrative manager for Menasha Corp., said after a hearing before the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency that he was disappointed with the decision.
"I am proud of the job Menasha did on this harvest," Salyer said. "The forest is in much better shape than it was before the harvest."
Tahoe regulators have litigation pending against Menasha if the civil liability isn't paid. When asked after the hearing what Menasha would do now, Salyer answered: "Defend vigorously in federal court."
The tree-thinning project occurred about one year ago. Hired by the Tahoe City Public Utility District, Menasha was to thin the forest on 113 West Shore acres to reduce the threat of wildfire and improve the health of the forest.
Afterward, however, TRPA and Menasha disputed what had happened. The agency alleges that 80 conditions of its permit were violated, including felling 49 trees of 30 inches or more in diameter without permission.
Trees that size, likely more than 100 years old, are protected by a TRPA old-growth ordinance. Loggers must get tree-by-tree permission to fell them. About 5 percent of the basin's forests are old growth.
Menasha admits there was miscommunication and that it didn't follow some of the conditions of the permit. However, the company has maintained that its work benefited the forest and that a civil penalty was uncalled for.
Jerome Waldie, chairman of the legal committee of the Tahoe agency, presided over a six-hour quasi-judicial hearing in January to determine if TRPA should continue its plans to fine Menasha. Waldie, a former congressman and now the California Senate Rules Committee appointee to TRPA's board, recommended to the board Wednesday the $160,000 fine, which is about $2,000 for each violation.
"We really do care about trees 30 inches in diameter or more," Waldie said. "We look at any loss of those with a great sense of deprivation."
Terry Giles, the governor of California's representative on the board, said he thought Menasha had not acted maliciously and he believed that the trees removed may have needed to be cut. However, he said the bistate regulatory agency should be strict about its rules. If not it could set a bad precedent for other companies or people who have to follow the rules.
"I think we're in trouble if we don't make this a strict liability," he said.
The Tahoe City utility, which acts as a parks and recreation service for an area of the West Shore, was named in the fine because it owns the land. However, Menasha, as the company that performed the work, had indemnified the government agency.
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.