Forest thinning: Work around Alder Creek to make woods fire safe, healthier | SierraSun.com

Forest thinning: Work around Alder Creek to make woods fire safe, healthier

David Bunker
Sierra Sun

Photo by Ryan Salm/Sierra SunThe U.S. Forest Service is planning a thinning project for the trees around Alder Creek.

Tahoe Donner forester Bill Houdyschell can imagine a blaze igniting in the thick national forest around Alder Creek Road and then mushrooming into a wildfire that, with the right winds, threatens the 6,000-plus homes of the subdivision.

And if the fire was whipped by east by winds, it would soon hit another group of homes ” Prosser Lakeview Estates.

But the U.S. Forest Service is planning to attack the thick forest before a catastrophic fire happens, by thinning and burning almost 800 acres of woods surrounding Alder Creek. In the process Forest Service officials said they hope to protect the northern edge of Truckee that abuts a section of timberland experts say is unnaturally thick, infested with bark beetle and littered with dead or dying trees.

“We’ve done a lot of work on [Tahoe Donner’s] borders, but if there is a north wind blowing [a fire], this project will be a big plus,” Houdyschell said.

The bark beetle infestation, which includes both the fir engraver beetle and the mountain pine beetle, is a problem that is creeping across public land toward the edge of Tahoe Donner, Houdyschell said.

“It’s bad,” he said. “It’s kind of working up toward our campground.”

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Forest officials have tailored the project to slow the bark beetle’s spread.

During the thinning project, foresters hope to mold 778 acres of the forest back into the natural state it held before fires and logging altered growth patterns. Forest officials characterize that as a thinner conifer forest that allows healthy aspen stands to develop along the creek banks.

“The conifers crowd in and shade in the aspens,” said Teri Banka, the Sierraville-based project manager for the Forest Service. “In a lot of areas [the aspens] are in danger of not regenerating.”

The federal agency is considering several unique tree removal methods ” including over-the-snow harvesting, helicopter logging and a cable skyline system ” to eliminate soil disturbance while thinning the forest, Banka said.

Each method would remove timber without skidding the logs across the soil, and will be used extensively around Alder and Prosser creeks.

“We are trying to design to project so it would not affect water quality,” said Banka.

The project proposes eliminating only the trees that are 30 inches in diameter or smaller at breast height, according to Forest Service documents.

The federal agency is accepting comments on the thinning proposal until April 17. Cutting may begin as early as this fall, Banka said.

“This is a unique project because of the sensitive area,” Banka said.

Previous logging between 1999 and 2001 avoided the creek, leaving the area overcrowded and unhealthy, she said.

And the area still shows the effects of the devastating 1960 Donner Ridge Fire that incinerated the forest.

The project also proposes controlled burning along Alder Creek Road, and thinning or controlled burning in the forest understory, using a mosaic pattern that will reduce vegetation while preserving habitat that supports a goshawk population.

“There is a high risk of fire starts along the road,” Banka said.

She said the project, which will be contracted out to a timber company, is intended to improve water quality by enhancing the natural vegetation around Alder Creek.

The agency is expected to pay a timber contractor for the work, but will subsidize the project by selling the harvested timber.

Houdyschell hopes the project will leave the forest in a similar condition to the heavily maintained forest along the edges of the Tahoe Donner subdivision.

“What they are proposing is very similar to a lot of the things we have done right on the other side of the property line,” he said.