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Forest Service ready to clean out Tahoe’s dead trees

Gregory Crofton

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE – Mark Johnson surveyed a forest floor littered with dead trees next to hundreds of homes off Angora Ridge Road.

The dead trees need to come out, and controlled fire should be used to eliminate underbrush and ladder fuels, said Johnson, a fuels specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.

Johnson walked the woods off Forest Mountain Road this week to contemplate how the Healthy Forest Initiative, legislation recently approved by Congress, could affect the Lake Tahoe basin.

Johnson said he anticipates the rules in the legislation, if signed by President Bush, will allow the Forest Service to spend less time analyzing the variety of ways a fuel reduction project can be done and more time actually doing the work.

It requires that the Forest Service study only one alternative for a project within 1.5 miles of a community, instead of the multiple alternatives required for such projects today.

“We’ll save a huge amount of analysis on alternatives that you know are not practical or viable,” said Rex Norman, USFS public affairs officer. “But it doesn’t eliminate opportunity for the public to comment.”

Johnson said thinning projects under way at the North Shore and planning for a 600-acre fuel reduction project on the West Shore won’t be affected by the new rules.

But they could speed thinning projects at South Shore, land which the Forest Service and the South Lake Tahoe Fire Department are in the process of examining to figure out where trees and brush need to come out.

While the Forest Service views the legislation guardedly, hoping it can make projects more efficient, environmental activists see the bill in a different light.

The legislation wrongly ties forest health projects to timber sales, said Ryan Henson, policy director for the California Wilderness Coalition. But he said he was encouraged Congress will provide an increase of $340 million, or $760 million annually for USFS forest health projects.

“In the past, we’ve logged our way to fire safety and forest health,” Henson said. “The fact they allocated this money shows a little bit of common sense.”

At least 50 percent of that money will be spent on thinning fire-ready forests within a 1.5-mile radius of communities. But the legislation also requires protection of old-growth trees. The bill requires older forest plans to be updated within three years to include this old-growth protection.

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, a national forest established in 1973, is updating its forest plan. The plan in use today provides protection for older, large trees and allows timber sales to help cover the cost of thinning projects.

Dave Bischel, president of the California Forestry Association, said the bill won’t result in massive timber harvests.

“I think this is a win-win,” said Bischel, who works for an association that represents professional foresters, loggers and wood products industries. “It really provides the tools and funding for the Forest Service and other natural resource professionals to identify high-risk areas in the state, focus on the urban intermix, and work within watersheds that have municipal water systems associated with them.”

Bischel said he expects most of the work will be done by local contractors, arborists or loggers, with some of the wood removed used for renewable energy. But that the majority of thinning projects will not be moneymakers.

Michael Donahoe, conservation co-chairman of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club, said he supports timber slash being removed from the forest and used for such projects like the biomass boiler that may be installed at South Tahoe High School. But he said the forest should not be relied on to pick up the tab for thinning work.

“Part of this Healthy Forest Initiative is looking for us to pay for the thinning by cutting down timber that can be used for logs and wood products,” Donahoe said. “I’m having trouble with that trend. I think our forests are national treasures and needed to protect both air and water quality.”

Donahoe said he also has concerns about legislation limiting the number of alternatives for thinning projects.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who spent several years working with other senators on the legislation, says the public still gets a say.

“This legislation fully preserves multiple opportunities for meaningful public involvement,” Feinstein said. “People can attend a public meeting on every project and submit comments during both the preparation of the environmental impact statement and during the administrative review process.”

Contact Gregory Crofton at (530) 542-8045 or gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com