The city of South Lake Tahoe could face more than $400,000 in fines and restoration costs for clear-cutting at least 200 trees near the northeast end of its airport, according to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
Removal of at least 86 of the downed trees was in violation of a tree-removal permit issued by the California Department of Forestry, according to TRPA officials.
Dozens of large trees were felled on a hillside stretching over five acres. Included were several that served as anchors for the eroded banks of the North Upper Truckee River.
There were no markings or ribbons on the trees to indicate that they were measured or surveyed prior to removal.
The river has been targeted as needing major restoration because it is the largest source of sediment contributing to Lake Tahoe's declining water clarity.
City Attorney Kathy DeCamillo said she was just learning the facts of the situation on Tuesday afternoon.
"City staff was acting pursuant to a directive from the California Department of Transportation and also according to a tree-removal permit obtained from the California Department of Forestry," she said.
The forestry department's permit allowed for removal of 100 trees under 10 inches in diameter at chest height, according to TRPA officials. Agency staff counted at least 86 of the estimated 200 down trees were larger than 10 inches diameter. Several were more than 50 feet tall and larger than 2 feet in diameter.
Based on precedent, the city could face at least $430,000 in fines for the 86 trees allegedly outside the permit's parameters. Recent tree-removal violations under TRPA have been resolved for between $5,000 and $17,000 per tree.
"There is a precedence of $5,000 per tree," Regan said.
Restoration is also usually required as part of settlements with the agency, which has jurisdiction over development on all property in the Tahoe Basin.
In a letter addressed to airport manager Smokey Rickerd, dated April 19, Patrick Miles with the state transportation department's aviation division writes "we will suspend night operations at the airport on June 6" if certain safety conditions weren't met immediately. Those measures included clearing trees near approach surfaces and around wind socks. The letter was provided by TRPA.
"Preliminary research indicates this could be one of the largest willful violations on record," said TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan in an e-mail.
Apparently, much of the logging was conducted over Memorial Day weekend. When TRPA staff discovered the violation, they issued a cease- and-desist order on May 30. TRPA officials allege that work continued after the order was issued. They issued a second order on Friday.
"The city must be held to the same standards as any property owner in Lake Tahoe and it's unacceptable to clear-cut trees along the riverbed, particularly given the sensitivity of the watershed behind the airport," said TRPA executive director John Singlaub in a statement. "In the past, we've worked closely with the city and the FAA on tree-removal permits, and we're unclear as to why they chose not to collaborate with us on this important issue."
Lahontan Water Board, which regulates water quality in the Sierra Nevada region, has also become involved in the investigation, according to Regan.
The California Tahoe Conservancy is in the review stages of a $1.5 million restoration project south of the area of the clear cut. The project is a partnership with the city.
"This will add to an already major erosion problem in the area," said Friedrich while touring the area on Tuesday. He wondered why the work had to be done in such a rush and why it was done on a holiday weekend.
"TRPA, Lahontan and other agencies charged with safeguarding Lake Tahoe should get to the bottom of this and hold the city accountable," he said.