Conservancy, residents differ about fuel reduction
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. – The reduction of forest fuels in the Lake Tahoe Basin has reached unprecedented levels since 2007’s Angora fire.
Political awareness of the threat wildfire poses to the basin has made funding available to implement projects that were once stuck in planning purgatory.
But the increased volume of fuel reduction has also become a concern for some residents who feel the efforts may diminish the mountain lifestyle that caused them to seek a life in the woods in the first place.
Land managers, as well as some residents, contend the level of fuel reduction is necessary to reduce the basin’s susceptibility to catastrophic wildfire, pointing to historic evidence that the forests people have become accustomed to are unnaturally dense, unhealthy and unsafe.
“Welcome to the forest,” said Sitka Circle home owner Ralph Meyberg, while walking through a California Tahoe Conservancy parcel near his home with neighbor Steve Mason last week.
Both men have been upset by the what they feel is excessive cutting of trees on the parcel as part of fuel reduction project on 209 acres in the Meyers area. The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team project is identified as a priority by the Basin’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, according to documentation from the CTC.
The parcel has gone from a dense stand of pine and fir trees to a largely open area lacking some of the large trees which provided cover and screened traffic on nearby Mandan Street.
Meyberg said he’s not opposed to fuel reduction, but feels the wildfire threat could have been decreased if 25 percent more trees had been left on the parcel. Aspects of the forest he values could also have been preserved if more trees were left standing, Meyberg said.
Benefits of the forest, like wildlife habitat, privacy, erosion control and air quality, are being overlooked in favor of a singular focus on reducing the threat wildfire poses to the basin, Meyberg said.
“I believe in fuel reduction, but if that’s the model, then we’re in trouble,” Meyberg said while surveying the parcel last week.
He said many neighbors have been upset by the results of the project, with one even putting his house up for sale because of tree cutting.
“Our main point is that there’s many aspects to forest care,” Meyberg said.
CTC staff defended the fuel reduction measures this week.
Deputy Director Ray Lacey, a longtime South Shore resident, said he understood the initial, emotional shock of seeing the trees removed, but said the projects need time to achieve their full potential.
In several years, the area will be lush with vegetation and in a much healthier state compared to previous stands that were seven to 12 times denser than historic conditions because of decades of fire suppression. Fire suppression has stopped periodic, low-intensity fires from coming through the basin, allowing new growth to flourish and create the existing, unnaturally dense, situation.
Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team spokesman Jeff Cowen said each fuel reduction project goes through an extensive environmental review prior to proceeding.
Staff scientists, including soil scientists and wildlife biologists, look at each fuel treatment on CTC land to examine their effects outside of the wildfire arena, Lacey said.
Meyberg said he doubted whether land managers could really predict the future condition of the forest, while Lacey said examples of parcels treated with similar prescriptions at the North Shore have created healthy and fire resistant forests.
And not all of the residents in the area are opposed to the fuel reduction included in the Meyers project.
Osage Circle resident Brian Cohen said he was “so grateful” that efforts were underway to reduce the wildfire threat in the area.
“It’s providing us with some sort of safety,” Cohen said Thursday.
Meyberg has his doubts. He said the cutting of large trees appears to have been motivated by their potential profitability rather than fire safety.
The contention is a “gross mischaracterization”, Lacey said.
“We are not a timber agency, we are a conservancy,” Lacey said.
Although the CTC encourages contractors to get compensation for the wood they remove, the trees cut during fuel reduction projects is guided by the agency’s fuel prescription policies and not by profitability, Lacey said.
He said few contractors are willing to bid on fuel reduction projects because the expense of transporting material diminishes returns.
The larger trees removed from the Meyers project are expected to be sold as firewood from the contractor’s Truckee location, the less lucrative option compared to milling the wood for lumber, Lacey said.
Smaller material is taken to Loyalton Biomass Facility for electricity generation.
He said the CTC is willing to work with people to keep trees that may provide privacy, but said the overall number of trees still needs to be reduced on a great deal of public land for overall forest health, as well as fire safety.
Meyberg contends the current level of fuel reduction projects is a clear case of “not being able to see the forest for the trees.”
But seeing the forest takes a long-term perspective, Lacey said.
“If you don’t know what it should look like, it’s hard to see past the change before your eyes,” Lacey said.
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After a period of dry, warm weather, winter returns this week to Lake Tahoe.