After Angora: Forest Thinning Gains Momentum

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(South Lake Tahoe, CA)
Monday, June 23, 2008

The Tahoe Basin may be one of the most pristine environments in the world, but its political environment is often anything but.  When it comes to cutting down trees to reduce the risk of dangerous wildfires, more than 50 government agencies and interest groups want their say.  But since last year’s Angora Fire, people have started working together – and forest thinning efforts have picked up momentum.  As part of our series “After Angora,” KXJZ’s Ben Adler joined stakeholders on a tour of one area set for a makeover.

Just past Bliss State Park near South Lake Tahoe, this is what you’ll hear:
<sounds of birds chirping, wind blowing and water rushing>
Patches of sunlight struggle through a mass of trees – cedar, pine, alder, willow and fur.  And quite frankly, says John Pickett, there’s too many of them. 
Pickett: “This is so extraordinarily dense.”
Pickett is with the Tahoe Fire and Fuels team, a coalition of federal, state and local fire officials.  He’s in charge of figuring out how to thin this forest out – that is, cut down trees.  There are actually two reasons for doing this.  The first is to balance the area’s ecosystem, and help it thrive.  The second, and more obvious, is to create a buffer zone to protect two nearby neighborhoods from a wildfire in Bliss State Park.  It’s part of a 10-year plan to thin and burn 38,000 acres in the Tahoe Basin, at a cost of $10 million a year. 
Pickett: “All we’re trying to do is modify the fire behavior, keep it on the ground, keep it a little bit manageable, have an area where fire fighters can safely be on the ground, in front of the fires, working with the fire.” 
But you can’t just start cutting down trees – especially in the Tahoe Basin, with all its regulatory agencies and interest groups.  So to get everyone on board, Pickett is taking the stakeholders out to the forest to get their feedback and answer questions.  Today, he’s with members of several different groups. 
Participants: “League to Save Lake Tahoe.  Tahoe Science Consortium.  University of Nevada.  Contractor for the forest service.  Landowner.”
Pickett: “All right, let’s go walk through the woods.” 
<sound of branches crunching underfoot> 
Participant: “Things like that will come down, right?  I mean, this big dead tree, that comes down.”
Pickett: “Yeah.”
Before the fire, these people probably wouldn’t be working together.  Federal, state and local agencies didn’t interact well.  And environmentalists have been uneasy about forest thinning in sensitive areas like this one, where changes can impact trees, soils and the clarity of the lake.  The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s Julie Regan says the Angora Fire gave forest thinning efforts a boost. 
Regan: “We had been working together in a really positive way on the restoration of the lake and the environment.  But I think the fire brought a new level of urgency to focus on fuels and forest health, in terms of keeping it safe for our community.” 
That urgency translated to better communication among all the stakeholders, and also to federal funds – enough to start, John Pickett says, but not finish.
Pickett: “We do need funding, and if it’s important, then we’ll continue to get funding and do this work so that people can come up here, hopefully enjoy being able to have Tahoe without big fire scars damaging the forest up here.” 
That's a goal landowners, environmentalists and government agencies can all agree on.