U.S. Forest Service and California Tahoe Conservancy propose substantial land exchange
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and California Tahoe Conservancy hosted public information sessions Wednesday and Thursday night, Sept. 9-10, in South and North Lake Tahoe to present a proposed land transaction that could potentially include an exchange of close to 4,400 acres between the two organizations.
“We’re excited about it,” Chris Mertens, associate environmental planner for the CTC, said. “It makes a lot of sense.”
Lake Tahoe Basin U.S. Forest Service supervisor Jeff Marsolais echoed the sentiment.
“We’ve been talking about this for quite a few years,” he said. “We felt that this was a ripe time to re-engage.”
Both officials said the main idea behind the transaction is to streamline management of their respective lands. In simple terms, the proposal involves transferring Tahoe-area urban parcels from the Forest Service to the conservancy. It will also transfer larger state lands outside of North and South Lake Tahoe to the Forest Service.
The plan is in its initial stages with bill proposals currently in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives.
“We already have procedures that allow us to do this,” Marsolais said of the exchange, but the congressional acts could potentially expedite the process to make such a large transaction more feasible. Prior transactions between the two organizations have involved less individual parcels.
In the current proposal, the conservancy would gain 2,030 parcels from the Forest Service totalling 2,192 acres. The Forest Service would gain 93 parcels totalling 2,191 acres. Those parcels would include transferring national forest system lands that run through D.L. Bliss State Park to the California State Parks in exchange for land on the West Shore that adjoins other National Forest System lands.
Officials from both sides consider the land to be a relatively even exchange. This week’s information sessions aimed to collect public comment on the proposed exchange concept, not the congressional legislation.
Those in attendance at Wednesday night’s meeting generally supported the proposal, but were leery of congressional legislation.
“The concept is good,” longtime South Lake Tahoe resident Jon Hoefer said after looking at maps displaying the lands in discussion. “The only concern I have is the conservancy selling this land. That I would be really against.”
Fellow local and Tahoe Area Sierra Club member Laurel Ames agreed and also voiced her concern.
“The devil is in the details,” she said. “We want to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.”
Ames added that she has been a resident of the Tahoe area since 1947.
Responding to concerns on behalf of the conservancy, Mertens said, “We don’t want to sell these parcels. That’s not what the conservancy is here for.”
He further explained that almost all of the land in the proposal is currently considered environmentally sensitive and would likely stay that way. Of the conservancy’s current 4,800 parcels, only 17 would even be eligible for sale under their current guidelines, Mertens said. Those 17 parcels are considered to be designated as “town-center” lots, and are the only lots designated as environmentally sound for any type of development.
Similarly, Forest Service officials said that over 95 percent of the lots proposed to be transferred to the state fall under the 1980 Santini Burton Act, which stipulates that federal lands may be transferred to state and local governments but must remain deed restricted for conservation and public recreation. Multiple sources at Wednesday night’s South Lake Tahoe meeting said that the current Senate bill makes it clear that those designations would remain, while the House bill is less restrictive.
No timeline has been set for the transaction. Speaking for the Forest Service, Marsolais said that transactions could potentially occur in phases, but those details have yet to be decided.
“We’re pretty early in the stages,” Marsolais said. “We don’t know what the path will be.”
Any approved plan would still include a comprehensive assessment of the parcels designated for transfer.
“It doesn’t exempt us from our process,” Forest Service lands program manager Bob Rodman said of the proposed federal legislation.
Realistically Marsolais and Rodman expect it to be part of a five-to-10-year plan.
“It’s not our agency’s intent to start a decade-long land transfer,” Marsolais said.