Losing the trees for the forest (Opinion)

Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund

As CEO of the Tahoe Fund, I spend a lot of time working to improve the Lake Tahoe environment. Since our founding in 2010, we have supported more than 130 different environment improvement projects around Tahoe, helping to secure more than $100 million in philanthropic and public funds. Clearly, we have a thing for the environment. Which is why I know it sounds odd when I say that our number one priority is to remove trees from our forest.

Simply put, we have too many trees. And if we don’t figure out how to lose some of them, we face the very real risk of losing all of them. Yes, I know this runs afoul of many people’s ideas of taking care of Mother Nature. After all, the most quintessential statement of loving nature is hugging a tree.

Conventional thinking and the composition of our forests have changed since the advent of tree-hugging. There is now strong consensus among scientists, land managers and environmentalists about two things: our forests are overly dense, and they are dying because of it.

This didn’t happen overnight. A quick trip back in time reveals a healthy and thriving Tahoe forest stewarded by the Washoe Tribe, whose traditional ecological practices allowed the landscape to thin and regenerate annually. Then, in the 1800s, logging and mining interests took control and clear-cut the Basin. The forest grew back all at once, eliminating tree stand variety and changing the diversity of species. The following century, wildland firefighting agencies adopted a policy of “suppression first,” which inadvertently led to unchecked overgrowth.

Now, we have a forest with too many trees that are competing for a very limited supply of water and sunlight. This leaves them prone to disease, infestation, and mortality, which in turn, makes them extremely potent fuel for catastrophic wildfire. According to the US Forest Service, over 200 million trees have died in California since 2010. Last year alone 36 million trees died.

An October 2022 report from Land Tender estimated that there are approximately 300 trees per acre in Tahoe. Historically, when the forest was healthier, the number of trees per acre was about 25. This represents an 1100% increase, and according to calculations, about 22 million too many trees in Tahoe.

That’s worth repeating: The Tahoe Basin has 22 million more trees than a healthy forest should.

Simply put, we have too many straws in the cup. With too many trees drinking from a limited resource, they are dying and creating an excess of fuel ready to ignite and rapidly spread a catastrophic wildfire.

To be certain, neither I nor any mainstream scientists or agencies are advocating for clear-cutting. That’s what got us here in the first place. What we want to see is highly targeted, data-driven forest health treatments that create space, and provide access to water and light, so that healthy trees can flourish.

Fortunately, there are solutions. NV Energy’s Natural Disaster Protection Plan (NDPP) is a great example. Through this program, NV Energy, the US Forest Service and NV Department of Forestry have teamed up to treat vegetation around power lines throughout the greater Basin, with three goals in mind: improve forest health, slow the spread of wildfire, and maintain infrastructure capabilities during wildfires. Since 2019, crews have removed almost 50,000 trees from overcrowded parcels, along with 8,000-plus tons of dried brush, which acts as explosive fuel for fire. Importantly, they have also replanted this terrain with resilient native plants.

There are a lot of tools that can help us create healthier forests, with fewer straws in the cup. Done right, we can lose some trees and still keep our forest.

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