Tahoe West restoration project deserves public scrutiny (Opinion)

Recently the Forest Service announced its intent to proceed with the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Project, which includes forest thinning on 19,500 acres of land, biomass burning or removal, and approximately 2,000 acres of prescribed burning.

At roughly 59,000 acres, the project area includes nearly all of the western portion of the Lake Tahoe basin. Given the scale of the project, both residents and those with an interest in the Lake Tahoe Region have good reason to pay attention to this Project.

As a consequence of implementation of past federal forest thinning and wildfire reduction projects, the Lake Tahoe Region is peppered with over a half million slash piles. Many of those piles have been on the landscape for a decade or more, despite the fact that agency planning documents consistently contemplate their removal within no more than three to five years of their creation by work crews.

Too often piles are placed in environmentally sensitive areas, such as meadows, riparian strands, shorelines, or vernal pools, or at the bases of trees that are intended to be protected. Burning piles in such circumstances can result in a host of ecological ill-outcomes and, paradoxically, can increase the risk of wildfires.

Leaving them in place can also have adverse environmental consequences, which have gone unaddressed to date, degrading water quality in streams and the fabled alpine lakes in the basin and impacting wildlife habitat.

The Forest Service never planned for the possibility of leaving slash piles on the landscape indefinitely. And the agency does not keep a running inventory of slash piles in the Lake Tahoe basin. As a result, we do not have an accurate picture of the extent of the problem faced in managing existing slash piles or an analysis of the full range of environmental consequences of the decisions to leave them in place.

As the Forest Service proceeds with environmental review of the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Project, it is imperative to analyze the consequences of delayed biomass utilization and removal in the wake of forest thinning.

We contend that the agency should maintain a database of piles on the landscape, including GIS coordinates and date of pile placement. This would facilitate retrospective research to assist the agency in developing practical estimates of the real time it takes to burn piles after they are constructed and allow us to quantify the amount of downed material created, something never done before. And we urge the Forest Service to develop more robust protocols with respect to pile placement given landscape circumstances and project scale and enhance supervision of personnel conducting fuel thinning efforts.

These steps – incorporated at the front end of the planning process – will demonstrate that the agency is committed to the Lake Tahoe Restoration Partnership’s vision of using a science-based framework to guide forest management and the watershed restoration approaches necessary to assure that future generations will experience an ecologically healthy Lake Tahoe basin.

Kate Weiland, Irvine, Class of 2020, University High School

Matt Murphy, Class of 2023, Stanford University

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