My Turn: TRPA Governing Board needs to have fire-prevention expert
February 20, 2008
The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has accomplished much in the areas of maintaining water quality and clarity and preservation of the natural beauty of Lake Tahoe. I am proud to have played a part in the TRPAs creation and hope to be a part of changing its course to render it more effective in dealing with the all-important challenge of preventing future catastrophic wildfires in the Lake Tahoe Basin.Until the terrible Angora fire occurred, I opposed opening up the Bi-State Compact that created the TRPA because I felt the Governing Board, as presently composed, would enthusiastically deal with the problems revealed by the Angora fire by aggressively acting to review existing regulations and policies concerning the avoidance of catastrophic fires. However, this has not occurred. I now believe the makeup of the TRPA Governing Board should be amended to allow for seats at the table specifically for individuals who are experts and advocates of fire prevention and healthy forests.When the TRPA was created, the prevention of catastrophic fires was not considered or addressed. At the time, the health of Tahoes forests did not pose the risk of catastrophic fires as it now does 40 years later. Since then, forest fuels buildup has occurred as the result of unintended consequences of the TRPAs and Lahontan Water Quality Control Boards efforts to curb erosion by preventing the removal of forest fuels, especially from stream beds, and the efficiency of the fire departments in keeping fires in the basin under control. However, circumstances have changed, and now the threat of massive, catastrophic fires pose hazards to the lakes water quality and clarity never imagined by the creators of the Tahoe Regional Planning Compact. The most effective and knowledgeable group to address problems relating to the protection and safety of life and property in the basin is the Tahoe Basin fire chiefs. This group should be represented on the TRPA Governing Board. In the short term, I propose someone from the fire chiefs organization be appointed as an ex-officio member of the TRPA Governing Board. Although he or she would not be a voting member until the compact is amended, this individual would be at the table to represent public-safety issues and to provide expert advice to the governing board on fire prevention and safety issues. In the long run and in the event the compact is reopened by the Nevada and California legislatures, the seat should become a permanent one with voting rights.Additionally, it was originally negotiated that the presidential appointment to the governing board was to be an individual who would represent the U.S. Forest Service in the basin. This was planned so that this governing board member could act as a link between the TRPA and the Forest Service and be available to render technical advice regarding forest-health issues. From the inception of the agency in 1970 to the mid-1980s, the presidential appointment was a forest representative. But in the mid-1980s, the appointment shifted from a federal forest expert to a political appointment. This, in my opinion, has greatly contributed to the poor relationship and mistrust that has developed between the TRPA and the Forest Service that continues to this day. I would encourage the next president of the United States to return to the intention of the framers of the compact and appoint an individual who is knowledgeable in forest-health and maintenance issues, and has familiarity with the operations of the largest landowner in the basin, the federal government. This is not at all intended to criticize the present presidential appointee, Stuart Yount, as he has attended the TRPA Governing Board meetings regularly and has participated fully in its deliberations. However, if the compact is opened for amendment, this seat on the governing board should be specified as one to be held by an expert in forest-health management, preferably with experience in the federal system.It is now seven months after the Angora fire, and the TRPA has not seriously approached problems concerning removal of forest fuels from stream zones that remain a major contributor to catastrophic wildfires. I believe the governing board of the TRPA should be reconstituted, and its No. 1 priority should be avoidance and prevention of further catastrophic fires in the Lake Tahoe Basin.As Dr. Elwood Miller of the Nevada Fire Safe Council stated: The forest fuels will be removed from Lake Tahoe Basin. The only question is, will it be by us or another catastrophic wildfire?Coe Swobe is a member of the TRPA Governing Board, chairman of the TRPAs recently formed Fire Committee and formerly served as a Nevada state senator.
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