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Insects, drought blamed on Tahoe tree browning

Annie Flanzraich / North Lake Tahoe Bonanza

LAKE TAHOE – Drought, road salt, controlled burns and insects could be turning trees brown in North Lake Tahoe, especially on State Route 28 and near Snowflake Lodge on Diamond Peak.

The patches of browning trees along State Route 28 are most likely due to road salt and drought conditions, agreed officials from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Nevada Department of Transportation and U.S. Forest Service.

“If it wasn’t just the trees on the edge, I would think there is something else in play,” said Brian Hirt, a senior TRPA forester.



Road salt affecting trees is something NDOT has dealt with for more than 20 years, said NDOT Engineer Thor Dyson.

“It’s been an ongoing reoccurring problem,” Dyson said.




In 2002 the Nevada Division of Forestry studied why trees along State Route 28 were dying after the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District began removing trees along the road that were hazardous.

Similar studies took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Bonanza archives. Those studies revealed that road salt was a minor player compared to drought and insects, officials said in 2002.

Now, the trees along State Route 28 seem to be going through a similar cycle.

“We have trees that are definitely brown or showing signs of stress due to a number of factors,” Dyson said. “We’ve been in more than four years of a serious drought and a combination of drought with our sanding and salting practices have definitely had a toll on the trees, particularly when the trees are in a weakened state.”

In the past 20 years, NDOT has tried to reduce the amount of salt it uses in the basin, Dyson said.

“It’s upsetting because we drive by it everyday,” Dyson said. “We are making every effort we can to reduce salt when possible. We’d love to put nothing down but that’s not possible because of the safety of the public.

In fiscal year 2008-2009, NDOT put down a total of 213 cubic yards of salt on State Route 28 in Washoe, Douglas and Carson counties.

Another element affecting the trees may be their downhill position, said U.S. Forest Service Spokesman Rex Norman.

“One of the things everyone noticed was the trees are on the downhill side of the road – you almost never see dead trees on the uphill side,” he said. “Those trees are in an area where the road coverage restricts moisture from getting into the soil.”

Another highly visible area of browning trees in Incline Village is located below Snowflake Lodge at Diamond Peak.

The browning is due to fuel treatments on about 150 acres on that hillside in October 2008, said North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District forester Forest Schafer.

“In the most recent burn on a few acres it was a situation where the weather became drier than we were anticipating and the fire burned harder than we expected,” Schafer said. “We were also starting out with a lot of dead vegetation to begin with and it was an especially difficult burn to implement.”

NLTFPD is monitoring the browning areas and plans to begin removing small dead trees in July, Schafer said.

This is the second phase of NLTFPD’s plan to deal with the charred area. Next summer the department will look at removing larger dead vegetation.

“The next stages are dependent on our monitoring,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea of how many trees need to come out and what needs to be done up there.”

For now the area does not pose a huge fire threat because the ground fuels have been removed, and the chances of an understory burn are very low, Shafer said.


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