Doolittle rips into the TRPA |

Doolittle rips into the TRPA

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about Lake Tahoe’s congressional representative, John Doolittle. Tomorrow’s article will address domestic issues and the war in Iraq.

By Amanda Fehd

Tribune staff writer

Government agencies received a lashing from Tahoe’s congressman Wednesday, who accused the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency of being arrogant and the U.S. Forest Service of not taking a leading role in fire prevention.

U.S. Representative John T. Doolittle, R-Roseville, stopped by the Tahoe Daily Tribune for a discussion on issues important to the basin and the nation, including fire, TRPA, Social Security, the war in Iraq and illegal immigration.

Doolittle said he will not be meeting with the TRPA on this visit but is concerned about what he called a lack of accountability.

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“It’s gone far beyond a planning agency and it’s become a government which basically is not accountable,” Doolittle said. There’s no debate on whether Lake Tahoe should be conserved, he said, but that would be done better by local governments elected by the people.

TRPA representatives said in a statement Wednesday they have been taking steps to improve accountability and service to the public, and the agency is working toward debunking a “myth that everyone loathes the TRPA and lives in fear of the agency.” Their polls show public opinion is evenly split.

“I believe we’re moving in a positive direction toward a new culture of public service, accountability and collaboration,” Executive Director John Singlaub said.

“We hope that Congressman Doolittle will agree to meet with us to allow us the opportunity to brief him on the facts, since it appears he may not be aware of all the progress that’s been made through TRPA’s leadership,” said spokeswoman Julie Regan.

The statement also said wholesale improvements on how the agency operates were developed at a Governing Board retreat in June and will be voted on at a meeting this month.

In addition, there is now mandatory customer service training for all employees. And the agency has participated in more than 200 community meetings and events since January 2004.

As far as accountability, the statement said, “All governing board members are accountable to either the voters or other elected officials.”

Doolittle didn’t agree. Board members cannot be removed from their job by the public, he pointed out. He said the only thing he can do is increase congressional oversight of the agency, but board members still have to take a more active role and “dig deeper” into what staff is doing.

Doolittle is unabashed in stating his preference the agency be abolished, but admits that’s unlikely.

Fire prevention

The congressman met with leaders of the Forest Service in Tahoe on Tuesday to discuss progress on fire prevention efforts.

“I tried to light a fire under them yesterday,” Doolittle said, becoming animated. He said the Forest Service “blamed” TRPA and Tahoe’s water agency, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board for delays.

“I’m not looking for finger-pointing, I’m looking for results,” Doolittle said.

Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman told the Tribune they do not “blame” anyone, but have a “regulatory reality” that means it can take up to 10 to 14 months to get a project approved by the TRPA. Other restrictions include a limited season in which to perform work, slopes over 40 percent and roadless areas that impinge access to the forest.

TRPA has made fire prevention its top priority, Regan said. It reduced regulations to allow fuels treatments in sensitive stream environment zones in May.

Doolittle also questioned accountability at the Forest Service.

“The Forest Service should be leading the charge and should not be taking ‘no’ for an answer. As owner of 80 percent of the land in the basin, they’ve got the biggest clout and they ought to be using their megaphone against the TRPA and against the Lahontan.”

But Norman, who was not at the meeting, countered that the agency is accountable to Congress and is meeting all its targets.

“Congress sets the targets for fuels reduction,” Norman said. Fuels are flammable materials in a forest. “We’ve not only met the targets every year since 2002, we’ve exceeded them.”

More than 2,000 acres have been treated so far this year.

They are not stretched for fire protection resources, Norman said.

“There have been over 2,200 wildfires in the Tahoe basin since 1973 – but most people only know about the Gondola fire,” Norman said. He also refuted a contention by the congressman that 40 percent of Tahoe’s trees are dead, saying that’s just plain incorrect.

“We are within normal ranges of tree mortality, and we are not a Southern California waiting to happen.”