Editorial: Felling of Jeffrey pines raises several tough questions
As reported in last week’s Tribune, two environmental groups are hopping mad because they think the U.S. Forest Service has mismanaged the removal of hazardous trees in the Angora fire burn area.
The Tahoe Area Sierra Club and Sierra Forest Legacy, a Sacramento-based organization with representatives on the South Shore, have criticized Forest Service cuts completed since summer, including one encompassing several large trees near the intersection of Tahoe Mountain Road and Forest Mountain Drive.
The trees, one a Jeffrey pine estimated by the groups to be 79 inches wide and about 350 years old, were cut down during a hazardous-tree removal project on the Forest Service’s Angora fire burn-area urban lots.
The groups contend that fire damage to the trees was not extensive enough to warrant toppling.
“We were convinced these trees would be left standing, based on what the Forest Service told us,” said Carla Ennis, co-chair of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. “I don’t know why those trees were cut down.”
U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Cheva Heck says the urban-lot hazardous-tree removal project was intended to remove trees in the burn area that were likely to die and posed a threat to human health or property if they fell.
That included, evidently, the large Jeffrey pine – and, according to Ennis, several other very large trees around Tahoe Mountain Road.
According to Forest Service officials, the agency used the percentage of living foliage remaining in a tree’s top to help indicate which fire-damaged trees to cut. Depending on a tree’s species, Forest Service project guidelines indicated percentages ranging from zero to 80 percent.
“We went by accepted fire-salvage standards,” Heck contends. “We used a very conservative approach.”
Ennis disputes the notion. “People are just using the fire to cut just about anything down,” she says. “It almost seems like a lot of things are being done wrong, because the gloves are off.”
Forest Service guidelines for the urban-lot project lay out a set of guidelines for felling potentially hazardous burn-area trees: broken or hanging branches, dead tops, exposed or damaged roots, evidence of decay, insect infestation or disease in combination with fire damage.
Such structural deficiencies helped determine why the large trees near Tahoe Mountain Road were deemed hazardous, Heck says.
“The reason why they were removed, even though they had green needles, is because they were a threat to a road,” she explains.
As with just about every controversy, there may be no absolute right or wrong here, though one disturbing bit of information should be carefully scrutinized: No details are available as to what specific defects caused the large trees to be cut.
Says Heck: “We don’t know what the specific structural defect was. Any number of people could have marked it (the tree). To some degree, it was a judgment call, but the guidelines are very clear.”
So here’s what you have: A tree that took approximately 350 years to grow that retains some green foliage is judged to be perilous and is cut by forestry technicians – perhaps without consulting outside professional foresters, residents and environmental groups.
According to Heck, though, crew leaders and professional foresters are responsible for spot-checking compliance with marking guidelines, so some checks and balances seem to be in place.
But though the tree was measured and marked for removal in a field data recorder, exact reasons for cutting the tree were not recorded.
It seems reasonable – especially for monumental trees of this age – to document precisely why the trees were hazardous and then determine the next steps. Another round of burn-area Forest Service tree removal near trails and unpaved roads could begin soon.
We’ll wait and see what transpires, but a variation on the old carpenter’s adage may apply here: “Consult twice, cut once.”
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