Under fire | SierraSun.com

Under fire

Megan Michelson
Sun News Service
Photo by Court Leve/Sun News Service
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Standing among Jeffrey pines in Tahoe Donner this week, forester Bill Houdyschell pointed out areas where trees had been thinned in order to reduce the threat of wildfire.

Even though part of Houdyschell’s job is to cut down trees, he still calls himself an environmentalist.

“We’re not just a bunch of plaid-shirted bumpkins running around,” Houdyschell said. “There really is science in this.”

Houdyschell claims that most foresters are primarily concerned about keeping the trees safe and healthy, which often means cutting them down.

“A lot of people just don’t think that tree cutting should be done,” he said. “They don’t understand the concept of cutting trees to save them in the long run.”

Houdyschell’s argument resurfaces an age-old debate between the forest industry and environmentalists, one that has plagued local fire districts and community activists looking to save our forests from catastrophic wildfire. But now, as opposed to several decades ago, those on both sides of the argument seem to be finding a middle ground, a place where a desire for forest protection overrides all else.

At the North Tahoe Fire Protection District station on Monday morning, District Chief Duane Whitelaw and Division Chief Bryce Keller discussed the impasse they’ve dealt with in trying to inform local residents about the importance of thinning and fuels reduction.

“We need to continue to educate our constituency on the long term effects of forest management,” Keller said. “Most people are so short sighted.”

Today, Keller said, the logging industry and the permitting process have changed, meaning less, if any, environmentally detrimental practices are taking place. But the relationship between the timber industry and environmental groups still appears at odds.

“What this boils down to is the environmental groups reacting to a true problem years ago of the timber industry’s poor practice,” Keller said. “The timber industry today will be the first to tell you they could have done a better job.”

Jeff Dowling, who used to work as a logger before taking a job as the Truckee area forester with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the regulatory process today doesn’t even resemble that of the past.

“Frankly, it’s entirely different. We have many more protective measures than we did, say, 25 years ago,” Dowling said.

The California Forest Practices Act was developed in 1973 to require private landowners to submit a timber harvesting plan before pursuing commercial harvesting or reforestation. Since then, the plan has continued to evolve, Dowling said. Today, there are provisions to protect soil and land productivity, water quality, wildlife habitat, endangered species and historical and archaeological sites.

Twenty-five years ago, most of those environmental concerns didn’t even exist, Dowling said.

“Water quality wasn’t protected to the same extent, there were no stream protection zones and wildlife and archaeology weren’t even concerns,” he said.

Despite those changes, Dowling said there’s still strife between environmentalists and the timber industry.

“There is still anxiety on both sides today, that’s for certain,” he said.

Michael Donohoe, conservation co-chair for the Tahoe Area Sierra Club, agreed that environmental groups and the forest industry still have a ways to go, but that they have found common ground.

“The Sierra Club is most interested in protecting spaces around communities,” he said. “Our major focus is on cutting brush and small diameter trees.”

On those points, both sides of the divide would agree, but when it comes to larger trees, Donohoe says the Sierra Club maintains a no cutting attitude.

“We’ve got to stay away from cutting trees larger than 20 inches in diameter.We don’t support cutting big trees to pretend to save them,” Donohoe said.

In the California State Parks along the North and West shores of Lake Tahoe, forest management techniques include commercial thinning with logging contractors, hand-crew thinning, pile burning and preparing for prescribed burns.

Compared to the 1990s, when crews from California State Parks worked on aggressive prescribed fire programs, today, Rich Adams, district forester for the Sierra District of California State Parks, says they’re focusing on thinning to prepare for safe and effective prescribed burns.

And although they’re still removing large trees, Adams claims the intent is different than it was in the past ” when foresters were criticized for cutting trees primarily for the financial gains.

“Commercial-sized trees do help pay for fuels treatment. That’s a benefit of removing commercial sized trees, but I don’t think that’s a reason to remove trees,” he said. “The reason I’m removing commercial-sized trees is for the ecological benefit.”

Adams added that removing trees doesn’t even bring in as much money as it once did.

“We used to bring in revenue from the sale of commercial-sized trees,” Adams said, “but with the added fuel costs and the drop in log prices, we’re just doing break even contracts.”

All logging companies in the Truckee Tahoe area have closed down in the last 10 years, leaving the closest ones in Quincy and Lincoln, almost 100 miles away. This means it’s not only more difficult, but it’s more expensive to contract a timber company to come into the Tahoe Basin.

“There were probably 400 sawmills in the state of California 15 years ago. There are only 20 left today,” Dowling said.

Although the battle between environmental groups and the timber industry still rages on, both sides say that through the years, former opponents have discovered a middle ground.

“I know this whole issue has been politicized, but frankly, there is a common ground,” Dowling said. “We’re all environmentalists, just to different degrees. We all want clean air, clean water and healthy trees ” it’s just a question of what we’ll do to get those things.”