KINGS BEACH The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency says it needs $55 million to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires in 21,600 acres closest to homes, but a forestry expert says even that much money won’t be enough.
“You cannot save the lake if you do not save the forest,” Thomas Bonnicksen, a professor of forest science at Texas A&M University, told the agency on Wednesday.
He told the TRPA governing board that much more of an unhealthy, overgrown forest must be thinned and selectively logged should the Tahoe Basin avoid a major fire and its long-term environmental consequences.
“You can spend tens of millions of dollars to keep that lake clean and have one fire wipe it out,” he said.
Bonnicksen, author of numerous studies on forest issues and a book tracing the history of Americas forests over the last 18,000 years, was asked to speak to TRPA as the agency prepares a comprehensive fire strategy for the alpine lake.
The bistate agency established by Congress in 1969 to protect Tahoe’s threatened environment is reviewing the last of six plans prepared by fire districts around the lake in Nevada and California that identify forested landscape closest to communities that have the highest priority for thinning.
TRPA now will develop prepare a plan on how to thin the acres and come up with the those 21,600 acres and come up with the $55 million needed to do so.
“We continue to move forward on a number of fronts” to reduce fire danger, which was TRPA’s top priority in 2004, said John Singlaub, agency executive director.
Bonnicksen praised the efforts by TRPA and Tahoe’s fire districts and said concentrating first in those areas closest to communities is a good beginning.
“That’s not going to solve the problem. It can’t,” Bonnicksen said.
Bonnicksen, who served on fact-finding missions in the wake of disastrous wildfires in Yellowstone National Park in 1988 and in Southern California two years ago, said Lake Tahoe suffers from some of the same conditions that prevailed there.
After much of the Tahoe Basin was clear-cut by Comstock-era loggers and more than a century of active fire suppression, Tahoe’s forests are even-aged, unhealthy and ready to burn.
A century ago, forests contained approximately 66 trees an acre. Today’s average 460 trees an acre with parts of the Sierra exceeding 1,200 per acre, Bonnicksen said.
“They are overcrowded and unnatural,” he said. “Unnatural forests burn in unnatural ways.”
Bonnicksen’s work is routinely cited by the timber industry and criticized by environmentalists.
Jay Watson, the wildland fire program director for The Wilderness Society based in California, has described Bonnicksen as “the timber industry’s hired, scientist gun.”
Rochelle Nason of the League to Save Lake Tahoe said the environmental group stands ready to review all forest health projects that might help prevent a catastrophic fire.
“We also agree that restoration forestry, which we call ecosystem restoration, needs to be done,” Nason said. “It all depends on how the projects are designed and implemented.”