Lake Tahoe logging plan ignites a court battle

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Should the scorched forests around Lake Tahoe be logged and replanted, or should they be allowed to regenerate at nature’s pace? That’s the issue at the heart of a lawsuit filed recently in U.S. District Court in Sacramento by the environmental group Earth Island Institute and others against the U.S Forest Service.

In 2007, a wildfire destroyed 250 homes on the south shore of the cobalt-blue lake, a major tourist attraction on the California-Nevada border.

Chad Hanson, executive director of the Institute’s John Muir Project, is among a growing number of scientists who argue that burned forests are ecologically significant and were a much more prevalent part of a healthy Western landscape before full-scale wildfire fighting took root in the 20th century.

But the idea advanced by Hanson and the lawsuit — that the blackened forest should be left to its own regeneration — is not an easy sell among many local residents who want their landscape to be green again as soon as possible. The Forest Service contends that logging and restoration is necessary to prevent a similar fire in the future.


According to the Institute, there’s no threat the burned-over land will ignite again for at least a decade, long after the forest will be well on its way to regenerating naturally. In fact, tiny saplings started poking up through the brush within a year after the fire, and as of last fall the charred landscape was teeming with insects and birds.

“We have this... cultural prejudice that goes back to Smokey Bear and Bambi,” said Hanson, a fire ecology researcher at UC Davis. “We’ve been taught in our culture to think this is destroyed. But ecologically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth.”

Rodney Siegel, executive director of the Institute for Bird Populations and its Sierra Bird Observatory in Point Reyes Station, Calif., has done research for the Forest Service on the black-backed woodpecker in the Sierra, and its aversion to post-fire logging. “It is a very new concept to even be treating this as an ecosystem that needs monitoring,” said Siegel, walking through the burned forest with Hanson.

As the trail ascended a hill into the more severely burned landscape, woodpeckers, jays, flycatchers and other birds zipped around the standing snags, over downed logs and beneath the remaining bits of unburned forest canopy. “It’s sort of counterintuitive,” Hanson said, “but as fire intensity goes up, so does the abundance of wildlife and the wildlife diversity.”

The Forest Service designated the black-backed woodpecker as the management indicator species for burned forests in the Sierra Nevada in 2007. It’s the same tag the northern spotted owl carried in the Pacific Northwest as a tool to monitor the overall health of the ecosystem — a “canary in the coal mine,” as agency officials say.

But many local residents support the Angora Fire logging project, especially those who lost their homes three years ago. Said Larry Lambdin, who rebuilt shortly after the fire: ‘We look out our front door and this whole ridge is just blackened trees...It would be too bad if we can’t remove some of those trees so the newer trees will have a better chance to survive.”

Unlike most post-fire logging projects, the one at Tahoe is intended solely to reduce fuels and improve overall forest health, and not produce timber for sale, Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck said. “Without additional live tree thinning, some stands will remain too dense, leaving them susceptible to insects and disease,” she said.

In addition to increased fuel loads, downed logs would complicate efforts to fight future wildfires on the ground, Heck said. Shedisagreed that the logging poses a threat to wildlife, including the black-backed woodpecker, and noted that the proposal would leave 1,168 acres to regenerate naturally.

Hanson, meanwhile, said the agency’s Tahoe environmental reviews are flawed. He believes the Forest Service badly underestimated the amount of forest needed to support a pair of the black-backed woodpeckers as well as the number of pairs needed to support a population in the Tahoe basin. He said the agency’s plans would eliminate 70% of all existing priority habitat for the species in the area.

The Forest Service, however, has stated the bird’s population is “stable” throughout the Sierra. ALSO:

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-- Scott Sonner/Associated Press

Photo Top: In July 2010, a warning sign is seen for hikers entering the area burned in the 2007 Angora Fire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Environmentalists are suing the Forest Service to try to block the logging of the area saying that burned forests are ecologically significant and they should be left to their own regeneration. Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Photo Bottom: In July 2010, a rare Black-Backed woodpecker is seen in part of the burned remains of the Angora Fire near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. Environmentalists are suing the Forest Service to try to block the logging of the area claiming it would eliminate about 70 percent of the last suitable habitat for the Black-Backed woodpecker across the entire 230 square miles of national forest surrounding Lake Tahoe. Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli