Old growth definition not exactly clear-cut
No one cared how old the forest was 100 years ago, when loggers clear-cut the Tahoe Basin to supply timber and cordwood for the mines of the Comstock Lode.
After 40 years of logging, the ancient forest was replaced by a sea of stumps and a young forest that was far more uniform than the old forest it replaced.
Only on the most inaccessible ridges, and on private parcels near the lake, did the native, old-growth forest survive.
Now, years after the end of wholesale logging, researchers wonder how different the basin would be if the forest resembled its pre-Comstock condition. One thing is clear, says Steve Chilton of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency – when the ancient forest disappeared, so did the habitat essential for a wide range of wildlife.
Animals that need an undisturbed forest to thrive include bald eagles, ospreys, pine martens and badgers.
“Old-growth forests offer a type of habitat here that’s in scarce supply now, but was once abundant,” Chilton said.
For the past year, a diverse group of private and public foresters has been working on a way to define the characteristics of an old-growth forest. The group, the Forest Health Consensus Group, presented the TRPA’s governing board with a proposed standard for old-growth forest that called for the “promotion and perpetuation” of ancient forests in the Tahoe Basin. The group also recommended the TRPA favor the retention of individual trees with a diameter of 30 inches or more, measured at breast height, because of their old-growth, or “late seral” attributes.
Missing from the proposed definition were references to retaining stands with at least four 30-inch trees per acre, or preserving wildlife corridors between old-growth stands. Those ingredients were dropped after representatives of the U.S. Forest Service expressed misgivings in April that such a definition might tie the hands of property owners who happened to have, say, a single large tree on a quarter-acre lot.
The TRPA board will consider adopting the standard at its meeting on May 28, fulfilling a goal identified in the 1991 evaluation of the basin’s environment.
“In my eyes, I see it as very important to the future generations who come to Lake Tahoe,” Chilton said. “Every old-growth tree that is cut down is a loss that we can’t get back in our lifetimes.”
Linda Blum, an environmental consultant who represented the League to Save Lake Tahoe at the forest health meetings, said a diverse forest would help restore Lake Tahoe’s water quality, provide an important habitat for animals, and help limit certain plant diseases.
“One 200-, 300-, or 600-year-old tree standing by itself has visual qualities and aesthetic qualities all its own,” Blum said. “And if you are a butterfly and looking for an escape from a snowstorm, it has bark crevices large enough to crawl into for protection.”
But beyond their importance to wildlife, Blum said an ancient forest has qualities that appeal to humans on a deeper level.
“A majestic grove of large trees, where the limbs extend 50 or 60 feet from the trunk, has grasses and wildflowers growing on the forest floor in the spring and summer,” Blum said. “An old-growth forest has a certain architecture to it. Looking up at the complex structure, some people feel like they are in a cathedral.”
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