John Brissenden: Picking right trees to cut in Tahoe forest

John Brissenden: Picking right trees to cut in Tahoe forest

5 April 2008

published by

USA — When people think of Lake Tahoe, they see crystal blue waters surrounded by green forests – a vision that visitors from around the world come to experience. Decisions being made in the next few weeks could alter that vision, as the temporary California-Nevada Lake Tahoe Fire Commission makes its recommendations on whether to open Tahoe’s forests to large-scale logging, build new roads and otherwise “fireproof” the forests in the Tahoe basin.

As owner of an all-season resort just south of Tahoe, my family and our loyal customers have a huge stake in the commission’s recommendations. We know, after 26 years of living in the forest, that you can’t fireproof the forest. What we can do is reduce the risks on our own property. The commission should be recommending programs to fund fire-safe improvements for residents, not expensive infrastructure to facilitate heavy logging.

Everyone agrees that the forests in the Tahoe basin need to be thinned. The issues are how to go about it and where it will do the most good. Fuels reduction needs to be a priority around homes and less so in forested areas far away from development. The focus needs to be on the small trees and brush that ignite and spread wildfire. The fact is logging projects far away from the urban boundary do little to protect us. Rather than spend millions of state and federal dollars to support the timber industry, we need to spend that money on programs to help homeowners make their residences fire-safe.

The Angora fire report by the U.S. Forest Service stated that a large number of homes burned as a result of blowing embers and heat from nearby buildings – far more than from forest fuels. By protecting homes with fire-wise construction materials and landscaping, homeowners also protect their neighbor. California has instituted new building code standards, requiring new homes to be built using materials that can resist being ignited by embers. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency should adopt those codes so that the same level of protection is provided to homeowners on the Nevada side of the basin.

Adequate defensible space can determine if a home survives a wildfire – and whether firefighters can defend it. These brave men and women want to save every home, but if the homeowner hasn’t done the critical work to remove nearby brush, tree limbs, woodpiles and other sources of ignition, firefighters are forced to pass it by and try to save a home that is defensible. A report, released by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in January 2007, showed that less than a third of the homes in the Tahoe basin complied with local defensible space requirements. Every resident, including second homeowners, needs to pay attention to their property year-round to make sure that their property is maintained and defensible.

Lake Tahoe is a national landmark, and its special protections are the basis for much of the federal funding that comes into the basin. If these protections – like those that prohibit large-scale logging – are removed, lake clarity will be at risk and future funding may be reduced, including funding for thinning projects.

Tahoe receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money to help preserve its natural beauty. We can’t afford to lose that money by approving actions that degrade the lake’s environment. Logging the forests that surround Lake Tahoe will send loads of sediment and debris into the lake, further degrading its famous clarity. The Tahoe basin’s economy is dependent upon tourism and recreation, and we cannot compromise the qualities that draw millions of tourists – and their dollars – every year.

The commission needs to look beyond short-term goals and carefully consider how its decisions will impact the Tahoe basin’s people, economy, forests and streams in the years ahead.

My hope is that they will recommend common sense solutions for wildfire protection and not undo the significant efforts that have taken so many years to achieve.

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