Tahoe needs money to fund forest thinning

STATELINE - More than $17 million is needed to create defensible space around homes on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe Basin and help firefighters keep wildfires out of communities.

The bulk of the cash, $12.8 million, is needed for work at South Shore, according to a fire plan just completed for the Tahoe-Douglas Fire Protection District. Fire plans for the California side of the basin are almost complete, but the price tag will likely be much more than $17 million because California controls a larger amount of the basin.

The question of where to find the funding to create a halo of defensible space around communities in the basin provoked a short-but-sharp debate when the Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency - a bi-state organization formed in 1969 to protect the lake and regulate growth in the basin - met in August.

The board adopted a resolution "in support of funding for Tahoe basin-wide forest fuels reduction." It also asked its staff to include the issue as part of the agenda for its board meeting this month.

Coe Swobe, a Governing Board member from Reno, sparked the debate by arguing that a larger portion of the $37 million Tahoe got this year from the sale of federal land in Southern Nevada should go to forest fuel-reduction projects.

About $2.5 million of the $37 million from the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act is slated to fund forest thinning projects in 2005. The law that allowed money generated in Southern Nevada to be used for environmental improvement projects at Tahoe requires them to be based on science to improve the water quality of the lake.

Holding up a list of U.S. Forest Service projects to be funded with the $37 million, Swobe said: "It looks like one of those pork highway bills. Every pet project is on here.

"Unfortunately, and surprising to me, only $3 million of the $37 million, or 8 percent, is going to removal of forest fuels from the basin," Swobe said. "That is disappointing and far short of what Tahoe deserves."

Swobe said he sent letters to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., asking them to revisit the issue of how the funding is allocated because "scientific testimony reveals that a catastrophic wildfire would set back 100 years the water quality and ecology of Lake Tahoe."

Mary Morgan, acting deputy supervisor for the Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, did not attend the meeting, but said the agency is at "capacity" as far as the number of forest-thinning projects it can handle.

With the $2.2 million in federal funding earmarked for Tahoe by Congress, combined with the Southern Nevada money, about $2.5 million, the Forest Service has doubled its funding for forest thinning in 2005. And that number may climb as high as $7 million for 2006, she said.

"We are planning to expand our staff in the fuels and fire program," Morgan said, adding that there are other factors that inhibit work. They include contractors' limited interest projects in the basin and the lengthy process of analyzing the environmental impact of the work.

Also, at the August Governing Board meeting, TRPA Executive Director John Singlaub announced the agency will work to increase funding for the South Lake Tahoe office of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to allow homeowners to more quickly create defensible space.

After its funding was cut two years ago, CDF no longer could afford to pay two retired foresters who marked trees for removal on the north and south shores. Today, a TRPA forester does the job under a CDF license.

This summer, TRPA approved an agreement with North Tahoe Fire Protection District at Incline Village to allow a forester on its staff to issue tree-removal permits. About 240 residents have taken part in the program, said Jim Galloway, a governing board member and a Washoe County commissioner representing Incline Village.

"If we give (residents) a change to their job, they do it," Galloway said.

Creating a similar program on the California side of the basin would be more complicated and expensive because becoming a forester in California requires much more training and experience than it does in Nevada, said Mike Vollmer, TRPA vegetation program manager.

Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com


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