Firewood harvest a preview of Pioneer Project |

Firewood harvest a preview of Pioneer Project

Patrick McCartney

In a first step toward protecting South Lake Tahoe from forest fires, the U.S. Forest Service opened an area off Pioneer Trail Friday for the harvest of firewood.

The area near U.S. Highway 50 was one of the hardest hit during California’s six-year drought, as bark beetles decimated the weakened lodgepole pine, leaving behind a stand of ghostly snags.

While the fuelwood program is a bargain – $20 a cord compared to more than $100 if purchased retail – the harvest will also put the Forest Service a step up on its ambitious program to create a safety zone around the urban South Shore area.

“That makes me feel patriotic,” said Garth Butz of South Lake Tahoe, as he cut and stacked logs in a pickup truck Monday with the help of his wife, Kristal, and two children. The family relies on firewood for half its heating needs in the winter.

Butz said he leaped at the chance to harvest firewood when he heard that lodgepole pine was available.

“This stuff is gold,” he said. “I prefer lodgepole. It seems to burn hotter with less pitch, and has fewer knots when you split it.”

Next week, the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit will seek final approval of the 2,000-acre Pioneer Project from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. If approved, the Forest Service will advertise for bidders to create a defensible buffer around South Lake Tahoe and thin overstocked stands in the rest of the project.

Work could begin later this summer on a 7.5-acre area near Elks Road, where the plan allows logging on dry land. Most of the project will be tackled during the winter, when at least a foot of snow will protect the ground from logging operations.

In settling the appeals of the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter, the Forest Service has agreed to eliminate more than 1,200 acres from the project area away from homes. By settling, the project can start this year, said Juan Palma, the unit’s interim forest supervisor.

“We needed to do something here for the community,” Palma said. “We agreed to cut off portions of (two units) and dropped two others. The end result is that everything else remained.”

At the heart of the Pioneer Project will be a 1,200-foot corridor of forest with a reduced density. All debris in the Defensible Fuel Profile Zones will be stacked and burned, while the thinning will make it harder for a forest fire to sweep through the urban area.

“The DFPZ’s mission is, if fire comes, to provide a defense for firefighters to beat back the fire,” Palma said.

Without a buffer zone, firefighters would be forced to carve a firebreak through the forest if a fire threatened, Palma said.

“It would be a scar for years,” he said.

Comparing the task of managing the Tahoe Basin’s national forest to maintaining a garden, Palma said the Forest Service will have to continue its work of thinning the forest through logging and the use of prescribed fires. He said both approaches are necessary to produce a healthier forest.

“Some say timber sales are not an appropriate tool,” Palma said. “And I would agree that we need a menu of tools. But it’s not like we can go up there with a match. It doesn’t work like that. You have to take the heavy fuel out first, then you have to use fire on a periodic basis to keep the forest clear.”

Palma said his hope is that the Forest Service will receive sufficient funding in the future to restore the forest health before catastrophic fires can occur.

“In California last year, $250 million was spent on fire suppression,” Palma said. “If we could take 10 percent of that and apply it to prevention, to me it would be a dream come true. It makes a lot of sense to me.”

And nowhere could demonstrate that goal better than the Tahoe Basin, he added.

“The Tahoe Basin is a perfect model to do this – spend on the front end, and not on putting out fires.”

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