‘Our trails are decimated’: South Tahoe community concerned with logging operation
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Residents of the Golden Bear Trail neighborhood have voiced concerns regarding the active fuels project happening on Pioneer Trail from Stateline to Meyers.
While some community members are taken aback by the operation, the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has had this plan in place since April of 2018, according to a prescription written by Silviculturist Rita Mustatia.
The portion of the South Tahoe Fuels Treatment Project (3,737 acres), named the Montreal Whole Tree Contract, is being completed by partnerships with Great Basin Institute and CTL Forest Management.
The Forest service explained the relationship between all involved.
“GBI contracted, as a partner on behalf of the USFS, with CTL to implement the project. As such, they are the primary party overseeing the contract. That said, the USFS provides input and oversight as needed as part of our plan for a successful partnership and implementation of the Montreal contract and the larger South Tahoe project.”
CTL is contracted to thin 465 acres primarily along Pioneer Trail from Stateline to Meyers. The boundaries delineated with the USDA color coded flagging and paint system; Blue and pink surround the area to be thinned. Blue paint marks trees that are specifically selected to be removed while orange paint means the trees stay.
Similar thinning occurred around Apache Drive and Christmas Valley which allowed crews to directly attack the monstrous Caldor Fire. These efforts, along with passionate firefighting, are believed to have prevented the loss of homes and neighborhoods.
While the plan has been in place, officials admit in just a small section of the operation, it may not be progressing exactly how they anticipated. Per the prescription, planning and implementation began shortly after it was signed in April of 2018. Trees were marked in 2019 and that was just the beginning of what is expected to take a decade due to the need for piling and prescribed burning.
Over the past several weeks local family doctor Patrick Martin and his wife Mindy Badgley, residents who live near the project, have had ongoing conversations with officials and other neighborhood members in search of answers to what the plan is to recuperate their beloved community forest trails.
The couple rallied a group of about 20 residents and three fire department members for a community meeting on Friday, Sept. 9. During the meeting many residents spoke out, sharing the same concerns about the project. The overwhelming theme amongst those in attendance was surrounding the confusion and the lack of communication as to why it was being done.
“My husband still walks our dogs back [in the area] and I just can’t bear it,” Badgley told the Tribune. “Our trails are just decimated.”
Badgley and a few others shed tears as the discussion went from the “decimated” trails to the marks left behind by a logging operation that uses heavy machinery. Those trees greater than 14 inches in diameter cannot be removed by hand crews, Mustatia said, and added that mechanical operations are being used because of the size of trees within the area.
Other concerns were shared regarding potential erosion, loss of trails, habitats, and loss of what residents called “healthy looking trees.” While the trails were not considered official, they were informally named by the residents who also frequented them.
Badgley said, “I want somebody to keep these guys accountable and I don’t think that’s happening.”
Mustatia, certified for 18 years, uses her experience and education to apply management treatments to areas to reach the desired overall conditions. The decision rationale paints a picture of what it was like before and what has happened since.
“The clear-cut logging practices of the Comstock era in the nineteenth century have had a profound effect on the health and resiliency of forests within the Lake Tahoe Basin,” Mustatia said. “After this period of intense logging came a period of uniform growth of dense forest stands, coupled with fire suppression on the landscape.”
The prescription continues to address the impact of this regrowth, “This resulted in a forest that lacks species diversity, age diversity, and forest stage diversity; all of which negatively impact a forest’s ability to withstand or prevent an event that can result in the death of an entire forest stand, such as disease or wildland fire.”
Mustatia said she is the “writer of the prescriptions for anything from reforestation to managing fuels and forest health.” Mustatia said each project is designed to inform which trees should be removed and for what purpose.
On Monday, Sept. 12, Mustatia and Victor Lyon, Forest Service Vegetation Management staff officer, met with the concerned residents for a walk through of the area between Prospect Trail and Pioneer Trail.
“Some areas we are utilizing a designation by prescription, or DxP, which is basically instead of painting the trees letting the contractor, based on criteria, make choices on what trees would be removed,” Lyon said
Lyon returned with his team the following day to address the concerns found.
“There were some water bars that we were not satisfied with,” Lyon said. “They’re like a big water speed bump to divert water that would be flowing down to go off the sides into the forest, and we will be making sure we are satisfied with the final product before signing off.”
Lyon told the Tribune the contract between the Forest Service and the logging company details instructions on the types of trees to be removed.
“It seems that many large healthy trees are being taken down,” Martin said.
In response, Lyon acknowledged that due to the method of prescription the health of the tree is not a leading factor in decisions for trees to fell but rather the density of the forest.
Mustatia added, “The health of the overall forest and the purpose of this project is to deal with the density of the trees; which means the trees will also be able to better defend themselves from insects and disease.”
Even still, they both agree that the DxP approach perhaps was not the right one for this area.
Mustatia said the intention is “to reduce tree competition of the limited availability of water and nutrients improving the overall health and vigor of the remaining trees.”
Communications continue between the community and the agency in order to ensure better best practices for future projects.
Current best practices provided by the USDA Forest Service include restoring landing areas used for staging, system trails, non system trails are not included in this restoration.
As a result of recent communications with Golden Bear community the forest service will now be re-evaluating the DxP protocols and mark individual trees instead.
Lyon said they would also be implementing additional plans to improve communication to the community and for the reforestation opportunities where openings have been created or where unhealthy trees still exist.
Great Basin Institute provided comment on the prescription being executed by CTL.
“The Montreal Fuels Reduction Project has been implemented according to prescription and in compliance with design criteria established in the permitting process. Activities adhered to best management practices and public outreach to the local neighborhood has been largely successful and met with community gratitude and appreciation.”
GBI acknowledges that there are a few who don’t like the asthetic of the area currently left in the wake of the still in progress treatments.
“We hope the visual impositions of responsible urban forestry are preferred to darker images of homes lost from high severity fire,” GBI added.
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