Officials look at forest health issues

Fuels on the ground can help wildfires reach into trees, then spread quickly.

Fuels on the ground can help wildfires reach into trees, then spread quickly.

Instead of a carpet of trees all the same age, the forest around Lake Tahoe should be a mix of patches of open land and stands of older-growth pines, experts say.

Over the years, controlled fires would maintain the mosaic by eliminating the growth of smaller trees, which act as potent fuel for wildfire, and creating diversity among plants and wildlife on the forest floor.

The forest that surrounds Tahoe is uniform in age because miners in Virginia City brought clear-cutters to the lake in the 1860s.

Old-growth logs were shipped out of the basin by train through Glenbrook to construct and power the silver mines of the Comstock Lode.

Today, forest managers are trying to shift the focus from fire suppression to forest thinning and the use of controlled fire. It is not an easy task.

Many residents of the Lake Tahoe Basin like trees to surround their home because they provide privacy, while they fear the use of controlled fire. But forest and fire are a natural combination.

"This year we conducted just under 1,000 acres of prescribed fire work," said Rex Norman, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. "Compare that to the 10,000 acres that burned on average before settlement.

"To gain forest health benefits, the large volumes of hazardous fuels must be eliminated. This will be a long process, but once we can safely and ecologically return fire in the low and slow fashion nature intended, the long-term forest management gets easier."

Tom Bonnicksen, a professor of forestry at Texas A&M University who has studied California forests for 35 years, stresses the importance of creating forest management plans that look ahead hundreds of years. Otherwise, he said, foresters will spend billions thinning and re-thinning trees.

Ultimately, Bonnicksen said, all parts of forests need to be thinned and managed in a way that can be sustained.

Environmental watchdogs like the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign don't dispute the validity of Bonnicksen's prescription.

"Making small openings is not a bad idea," said director Craig Thomas. "I don't know if the people at Tahoe like that because it involves logging. But age, class diversity is essential. There's nothing wrong with that - it's how you do it."

To create openings in the forest, which would range between two-tenths of an acre and an acre, Bonnicksen suggests starting wherever there are concentrated pockets of dead trees.

"Tahoe is not gone," he said. "You have a forest that could be restored now."

Doing nothing to restore forest health at Tahoe will mean that fir trees will continue to push out the pines.

"Fir branches can go all the way to the ground," Bonnicksen said. "And firs are prone to disease and fall down at younger ages. It's a combination of things that make a white fir tree forest a very fire-prone forest."

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