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Babbitt favors controlled burns to restore forests

PATRICK McCARTNEY

INCLINE VILLAGE – After a tour of Tahoe Basin forests Monday, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt announced that he will promote the use of controlled fires to restore health to the ailing forests.

Speaking during a visit to a greenbelt at Incline Village, Babbitt said scientists have discovered the importance of fire in reducing the amount of fuel on the forest floor.

“A column of smoke in the sky is a signal of progress,” Babbitt said. “What we have learned from the experts is that the forests in the West co-evolved with fire, and that fire played an important role by pruning and thinning trees and providing space for a healthy forest.”

Firsthand look

Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman spent Monday getting a firsthand look at the forest health problems of Lake Tahoe. After the tour of forest projects in the morning, the two Cabinet officials hosted a workshop on forest restoration, recreation and tourism at the Hyatt Regency.

Joining the Cabinet officers were both U.S. senators from Nevada, Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, the new chief of the U.S. Forest Service, Michael Dombeck, and a number of deputy department heads.

The workshop was the second of three Cabinet-level conferences that will review the issues to be addressed during the July 25-26 Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum. The next workshop, on transportation and air quality, will be at the University of Nevada, Reno today.

Glickman, whose department oversees the U.S. Forest Service, said he did not realize how important forest issues would be when he took over the reins of the agriculture department.

Headaches and heartaches

“When I was appointed, I thought my headache was going to be the price of soybeans and corn,” Glickman said. “But my heartache turned out to be how many old and dying trees do we cut down.”

Three panels of local, state and regional officials briefed the officials on the state of Lake Tahoe’s forests, and efforts to restore their health.

Sue Husari of the Forest Service described a forest that has changed dramatically since American pioneers settled the basin in the mid-19th century. Before then, she said, the basin’s forests were swept by fire every five to 15 years.

But after the discovery of silver and gold in the Comstock Lode 20 miles from Lake Tahoe, the forests were clear-cut and, since the turn of the century, fire suppressed in the basin.

Ingredients for catastrophic fire

The result is a heavy buildup of brush and an overstocked forest that are the ingredients for a catastrophic fire unless the fuel is reduced through mechanical treatment or prescribed fire, Husari said.

“With the potential loss of resources, homes and lives, investment in fuel treatment is worth the cost,” she said.

To mimic how natural fires once reduced the amount of fuel, forestry officials would have to conduct controlled fires on 10,000 acres a year. Today, the average is just 200 acres a year.

But forestry experts also said that Tahoe’s forests are too dense to set prescribed fires without some mechanical treatment first.

Dan Tomascheski of Sierra Pacific Industries, which conducts most of the salvage logging projects in the region, said subsidies are needed for waste-to-energy plants before the company could pursue more thinning, or fuel-reduction projects.

“I don’t think we can go back to the 1700s, but we can make an approximation of what existed then,” Tomascheski said. “With the use of fire and timber harvesting, we can go a long way in this basin.”

Both Glickman and Babbitt heaped praise on the cooperative efforts of Tahoe Basin public agencies and private landowners, saying it was a model for how other areas could tackle their problems.

“What I have heard today is a lot of agreement about what a healthy forest should be, and on the use of a mix of tools to achieve it,” Glickman said.

“Now we need new, innovative ways to make it work.”


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