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League and Sierra Club appeal Pioneer Project

Patrick McCartney

Two environmental groups have appealed a U.S. Forest Service plan to restore the health of the South Shore’s forests, saying the Pioneer Project could increase the risk of fire rather than reduce it.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Club’s Toiyabe Chapter filed appeals Friday on the last day of the appeal period.

Each group supports the Forest Service proposal to create 200-foot-wide fuel breaks around South Lake Tahoe’s residential neighborhoods. But the environmental groups disagree with how the Forest Service would address forest health in the rest of the 3,136-acre Pioneer Project, saying the project favors commercial logging over other approaches.



A Forest Service fire specialist on Tuesday disputed the claims, saying that the creation of a defensible corridor around the neighborhoods is not enough to protect homes from a wildfire.

Rochelle Nason, the executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe, said the Forest Service ignored its own scientists in selecting a commercial harvest as a way to reduce the risk of fire in the surrounding forest.



“It is generally accepted today that if you allow fuel ladders to remain and leave slash lying around, you’re going to increase your fire problem,” Nason said.

She added that the Forest Service’s reliance on the sale of 8 million board-feet of timber creates the possibility that the agency will not complete the beneficial parts of the Pioneer Project, such as thinning small trees and the removal of dead trees.

The Forest Service has fallen $4.5 million short of the funding needed to complete the East Shore Project, Linda Blum, a League consultant, wrote in the appeal. And the Forest Service has been unable so far to interest timber companies to bid for the already approved North Shore Project, which carries a $6 million price tag.

“There is little likelihood that adequate funding will be generated by timber sale revenues to carry out … Phase II activities,” Blum wrote in the appeal.

John Swanson, the fire management officer for the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, said the groups are overlooking the long-term benefits to the forest from a commercial thinning of the ailing forest.

“In the first two to three years the danger may be greater, but in the long run (without the project), you would have a jack-straw of trees on the ground and a much greater long-term fire danger,” Swanson said. “The analysis is very clear in terms of the short-term fire danger. It is acceptable.”

Swanson said the majority of timber revenues would be generated from thinning the overstocked forest in the fuel breaks, called defensible fuel profile zones. He also disputed the claim of the two groups that prescribed fire or chipping would be preferable, saying that prescribed fire would not produce the specific results the Forest Service wants to achieve.

And if the appeals delay the start of the project, the revenues from the timber sale could drop because more dying trees would become too damaged to sell, he added.

In their appeals, the two environmental groups have asked the Forest Service to prepare an environmental impact statement for the project. The Forest Service has 45 days to work out its differences with the groups before the regional forester is required to make a final decision.


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