Lake Tahoe Summit
August 22, 2017
Lake Tahoe Summit
First, I want to thank Senator Feinstein for restoring the bi-partisan nature of this annual Tahoe Summit. Lincoln once reminded us “that we can succeed only by concert.” We demonstrated that maxim with the enactment of the Tahoe provisions in the Water Infrastructure Improvements Act last December. That wouldn’t have been possible without Republicans and Democrats coming together in Washington.
Returning the annual Lake Tahoe Summit to the same bi-partisanship is an important step forward locally and promises the same kind of progress into the future.
Two years ago at this summit, I warned that the greatest single environmental threat to the beauty and grandeur of Lake Tahoe was catastrophic wildfire. As if we needed reminding, on the day of that summit, the Rough Fire was threatening Yosemite Valley. Today, the South Fork fire is burning deep within Yosemite National Park and the town of Wawona is under mandatory evacuation. That could just as easily be Lake Tahoe.
Indeed, last month marked the tenth anniversary of the Angora Fire. Angora was tiny compared to the mega-fires we’ve seen in the last few years. Yet it destroyed 242 homes and 67 commercial structures. It cost the local economy an estimated $1 billion. It fouled the Basin with ash and left a scar on the land that is still visible today.
The threat has significantly increased in these last two years. Tree density in some parts of the Tahoe Basin is reported to be 500 to 600 per acre on land that normally supports 100. At the lower elevations, tree crowding is four times the historic density and at the upper levels, twice the density.
When we accepted responsibility a century ago to protect our forests and our forest communities for future generations from the ravages of wildfire, we assumed responsibility to manage those forests according to scientific principles of modern forestry. We recognized that excess timber comes out of our forests one way or the other – it is either carried out or it burns out. When we carried it out, we had healthy forests and a thriving economy. Forty five years ago, we abandoned that responsibility.
Trees that once had room to grow healthy and resilient now fight for their lives in desperately overcrowded conditions. In this stressed and unhealthy environment, their natural defenses to drought, pestilence and disease are completely overwhelmed. UC Davis researchers warned last month that tree mortality in the Tahoe Basin has increased dramatically, with the number of dead trees doubling from 35,000 in 2015 to 72,000 last year.
Seventeen fires have been extinguished here in the Tahoe Basin this year, thanks to the vigilance of our fire agencies at the local, state and federal levels and because of AlertTahoe fire cameras that are giving the early warnings so critical in stopping these fires before they can explode. But that is a thin green line indeed, and it will not hold if we do not restore scientific principles of forest management in the Tahoe Basin.
This is all the more important in warming epochs, when we cannot afford to lose precious snowfall to evaporation in dense canopies or lose precious groundwater to excessive transpiration in overcrowded forests.
For this reason, Congressman Amodei and I introduced the legislation that places forest management and fire prevention at the forefront of our environmental defense of Tahoe. And it is deeply gratifying to see its key provisions incorporated into the bi-partisan agreement that we celebrate today.
At the core of our legislation is a categorical exclusion from the time-consuming and cost-prohibitive provisions of NEPA in order to expedite and expand forest thinning projects in the Tahoe Basin of up to 10,000 acres per project. I am informed that the Forest Service is already moving on the first of these plans under this new authority and that the acreage will be identified and the project initiated within the next several months.
When I visited the command center of the Rough Fire two years ago, I asked the fire fighters what message I could carry back to Congress in their name. They said two words: “Treatment matters.” Where the fire reached treated portions of the forest, it broke up and slowed and could be extinguished. But, they warned, there just wasn’t enough of it. If we can follow through on the new legal authority from our legislation, this need not be the post-mortem of a future fire here.
Additional legislation building on these provisions is pending in the House, and needs to be enacted in coming months – hopefully with the same bi-partisan consensus begun here at Lake Tahoe.
At the last bi-partisan summit two years ago, I said I hoped that we would meet next time in an era of declining danger. We’re not there yet, but we have certainly turned the corner, the management tools are now in place and we must use them with the urgency that our forest conditions demand and pray that we are not too late.