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Christmas tree harvest benefits forest

Cutting down the family Christmas tree in the Tahoe Basin forest is not just a holiday tradition – it also can improve the health of a cluttered forest and prevent wildfires.

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service earlier this month began selling public permits to chop down 3,000 trees in the basin. The $10 permits expire on Christmas Eve.

But the program wasn’t solely motivated by holiday cheer. The Forest Service also wanted to recruit the public’s assistance in removing ladder fuels from the forest.



“That’s a big factor in our decision to open the basin for Christmas-tree cutting,” said Susanne Johnson, an information assistant for the U.S. Forest Service’s South Shore office. “It does help us thin the forest.”

Permit holders are allowed to choose from small-diameter pine, fir or cedar trees.



But it’s the elegant young white fir, with its symmetrical cone shape, that’s most coveted to harvest and decorate with ornaments and lights.

“We have a lot of understory firs that need to be thinned out,” Johnson said. “And the public is helping us to thin out mostly white fir stands and get a tree at the same time. So it’s a win-win.”

Of all the trees in the forest, the white fir population is overgrown and more susceptible to fire, said spokesman Rex Norman of the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

“Under the original, natural (forest) conditions, the frequent, low-intensity fires came through, and that helped control the white fir population,” Norman said.

White firs are ideal ladder fuels because their branches sweep down to the ground, the same feature that makes them attractive to seasonal-tree seekers. Their needles also are coated with a flammable resin.

“Fir trees burn very well when they’re green,” Norman said. “As long as there’s enough heat, they dry out quickly in a fire.”

Permits also state that the desired tree must be found within a 10-foot zone of another tree, which steers Christmas-tree choppers to denser stands of forest.

Like its Christmas-tree permits, the Forest Service’s firewood permits also serve a dual purpose – providing heat for homes while ridding the forest of dead ground fuel that is susceptible to wildfires.

While firewood permits expired in the Lake Tahoe Basin at the end of October, they still are valid in the Tahoe National Forest. Managers extended the program in the Truckee and Sierraville districts on a day-by-day basis, said spokeswoman Ann Westling of the Tahoe National Forest. Permit holders should call an information line for daily updates on whether the program still is open.

“Because we’ve had a drier fall and the roads are still drivable, we’re extending the season,” Westling said.

In addition to fuel reduction, wood permits also help clean up sites from logging, Westling said. In 2006, the Forest Service sold enough permits to clear out 2,700 cords of wood from the Tahoe National Forest.


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