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Presidential Forum to focus attention on ailing forests

Patrick McCartney

To the casual visitor, Tahoe Basin’s forests might appear to be healthy.

Stands of mixed conifer trees grow in thick profusion from the shores of Lake Tahoe to the ridgetops surrounding the basin.

But to those who study the forest environment, the Tahoe Basin forest has suffered from a century of abuses that have left it in critical condition.

“We recognize that Lake Tahoe (water quality) has changed and is in bad condition, but there may be things in the (forest) environment that are as serious,” said Chris Knopp of the U.S. Forest Service, who has studied the health of the basin’s forest.

Later this week, President Clinton and Vice President Gore are expected to announce measures the federal government can take to help cure Tahoe’s ailing forests.

According to Knopp, any assistance can’t come too soon.

After the discovery of the Comstock Lode 20 miles east of Lake Tahoe in 1859, loggers poured into the basin, clear-cutting large swaths of the native forest to satisfy the demand for timber in the gold and silver mines.

As the forest grew back, forestry practices had shifted to include the all-out suppression of fires, which historically had swept through the Tahoe Basin every 10 years or so, rejuvenating its forest.

The result has been the growth of an artificially dense and uniformly aged forest, where shade-loving trees, such as red fir, have gained the upper hand.

Add to that fundamental shift the effects of air pollution, introduction of new plant and animal species and the spread of urbanization, and it’s easy to see why the basin’s forest is considered endangered.

As California entered a six-year drought in 1988, natural pests like engraver beetles and bark beetles capitalized on the forest’s weakened state, leading to areas of high mortality. While the insect attack was part of a natural cycle that would ultimately result in a healthier forest, residents of the basin faced a new hazard – the risk of a catastrophic forest fire.

Brush and dead trees have accumulated, not just in the forest, but in the forested urban lots purchased by the Forest Service over the last decade. But funds to maintain the 3,500 urban lots have never been enough to keep up with the growth of brush and other fuel.

This weekend, the president is expected to announce a program that will call for the use of prescribed fire and mechanical fuel treatment to reduce the risk of fire in the Tahoe Basin over the next 10 years. Federal officials may also begin a program to obliterate many of the old, dirt logging roads that crisscross the backcountry.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture official, the cost of nursing Tahoe’s ailing forest back to health will exceed $15 million, but is a cost the federal government may commit to paying at this week’s summit on Lake Tahoe.

“The problem is the basin’s steep slopes, highly erodible soil and the lack of merchantable material,” said Jim Lyons, the department’s under secretary for natural resources and the environment. “The cost is even higher than the $15 million the Forest Service estimated.”


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