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Task of restoring Tahoe forests complex but achievable

Patrick McCartney

As a few stray snowflakes fell on Lake Tahoe Wednesday, two members of the Clinton Cabinet listened to a blizzard of testimony about the basin’s beleaguered forest and how to restore its health.

Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman presided over an impressive gathering of public and private interests, who addressed forest restoration, fire hazard reduction, and tourism and recreation.

In all, 13 individuals delivered prepared remarks, and 18 participants on three panels fielded questions from Babbitt and Glickman.

With a capacity audience of 450 looking on at the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village, the two cabinet officials ran the workshop in a casual but businesslike manner. At times, their questioning of the panelists, sometimes pressing for an answer, lent an aura of a Senate hearing to the affair.

In his introductory remarks, Glickman signaled a shift in how the U.S. Forest Service views the nation’s forests.

“By the year 2000, American forests will generate $130 billion in revenues a year. Of that, just $3.5 billion will come from timber and $98.5 billion from recreation,” Glickman said. “It’s high time the natural splendor of the forests gets the respect it deserves.”

A theme repeated throughout the workshop was the relative success the Tahoe Basin community has had in hashing out its differences and uniting behind a plan to restore the basin’s environment.

“What you have already done in the basin is way ahead of anywhere else in the West or across the nation,” Babbitt said. “The rest of the country is watching you.”

But the Cabinet members were informed of how difficult a task it will be to atone for the ecological sins of the past, when the basin’s forests were clearcut, its wetlands developed, and its hills crisscrossed by road scars.

The work to restore the forests and lake has barely begun, said those who gave overviews of current conditions.

John Christopherson of the Nevada Division of Forests said public agencies have completed 61 stream-restoration projects since 1980, restoring a total of 320 acres. During the same period, different agencies have completed 170 soil-erosion projects with a combined price tag of $80 million, he said.

Pam Wilcox of the Nevada Division of State Lands said public agencies have acquired and set aside more than 10,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land.

“We did not understand that we couldn’t build roads and homes without affecting the lake,” Wilcox said. “Now we are in the process of retrofitting the development, covering those scars and building miles of retaining walls along roadways.”

Many of the participants agreed on the need to use controlled fire and mechanical treatment to reduce the amount of natural fuel in the basin, although representatives of environmental groups remain opposed to widespread timber sales.

Michael Dombeck, the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency is looking at alternative methods to help prevent forest fires.

“Last year we spent $900 million fighting fires,” Dombeck said. “If we can focus on long-term goals instead, maybe we can make some progress.”

The formidable task ahead won’t be completed without some pain and disagreement, said Steve Chilton, chief of environmental compliance for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

“Restoring the forest ecosystem won’t be an easy job,” Chilton said. “There will be compromise and controversy. We will debate, and not always agree.”


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