Remarks at Lake Tahoe Summit 2018
For many years, forest management and fire-prevention took a back-seat at these summits, but now nature is screaming its warning at us as fires rage throughout the west: the Tahoe Basin is on borrowed time. The fires all around us present a stark question: How much longer does Tahoe have? Will the view at next year’s summit be one of burned out structures, blackened vistas and an ash-choked lake?
I have raised this issue at these summits for many years now. The thin line that has held so far is the vigilance of the Basin’s fire agencies, but that line can’t hold forever against a continuing buildup of fuels in these mountains.
I have often reminded these summits that excess timber WILL come out of the forest in one of only two ways. It is either carried out or it burns out. When we carried it out, we had healthy, resilient forests and thriving local economies, and revenues generated by surplus timber sales went to local governments and to support federal forest management.
But in the 1970’s, we consigned our forests to a policy of benign neglect by adopting laws that have made the active management of our forests endlessly time consuming and ultimately cost prohibitive. In those years, timber harvested off the federal lands fell 80 percent, with a concomitant increase in acreage destroyed by forest fire.
Today, we carry out about one fifth of the annual growth in our forests. QUESTION: If I delivered five newspapers to your doorstep every day and you only threw one of them away, how long would it take for your home to become a firetrap? That’s the condition of our public forests today.
Ironically, the privately managed lands not subject to these requirements have proven themselves to be more resistant to fire and much more resilient after a fire. Fires hitting properly managed lands slow and break up. And when a private forest is ravaged by fire, foresters are able to quickly salvage dead timber, suppress brush build-up, and plant new trees for the next generation. Surely we have learned by now that benign neglect doesn’t work and active forest management does.
The good news is that the WIIN Act included the provisions of the legislation that Mark Amodei and I introduced to expedite forest thinning projects in the Tahoe Basin. Under our legislation, active forest management of up to 10,000 acres at Tahoe now qualifies for a categorical exclusion from NEPA. Forest Service Region 5 Manager Randy Moore told me that this takes their environmental assessment from more than 800 pages to less than 40 pages, and Tahoe Basin Supervisor Jeff Marsolais reports that their first project under this new authority took just four months to permit.
That’s a step in the right direction, but only a step. The expedited authority under this law must be expanded and additional projects must be brought on line soon. Bureaucratic requirements that continue to force duplicative consultation with state agencies and the threat of lawsuits by opportunistic legal groups, are still dangerously slowing the process and inflating the costs of restoring our forests to resiliency -- and they must be changed.
Indeed, Dr. Kent of Alert Tahoe just told me that the two greatest obstacles he faces in placing early fire detection cameras in the mountains are NEPA and CEQA. Ladies and gentlemen, there is something desperately wrong with our laws.
Much has been said about global warning. Doesn’t a warming epoch make active forest management all the more important? A single 5-inch diameter pine tree requires 50 gallons of water every day to stay healthy. Fifty gallons a day. If we’re looking at more prolonged dry spells, we HAVE to match the tree density to a level that the land and groundwater can support. We have to space trees so that scarcer snow doesn’t get trapped in dense canopies and evaporate before it can reach the ground.
Forest fires and dead forests make a mockery of all the laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions. A burning or decaying forest releases carbon back into the air – while a growing forest absorbs enormous amounts of carbon. Milling surplus trees -- to make way for a healthy, growing forest -- sequesters their carbon indefinitely and renews the forest’s ability to absorb still more.
We know the policies that work and we have started to implement them, but much more remains to be done if we are to be worthy of the legacy that is Lake Tahoe and the trust that future generations have placed in us to preserve it and pass it on – well managed and well cared for. That must be the singular focus of these summits if we are to look forward to seeing the same beautiful view that we see today -- next year and in the many years to come.