The Alarm Bells are Ringing
Lake Tahoe Summit
Lake Tahoe, California
August 23, 2015
Tahoe rests on the northern boundary of California’s Fourth Congressional District. At this moment, a catastrophic wildfire is raging in the King’s Canyon region on the southern boundary of this very same district. That fire has already consumed 78 square miles of national forests and as of this morning is only 17 percent contained.
In this same district two years ago, the Rim Fire destroyed 400 square miles of Sierra forests near Yosemite. Last year in this same district, the King Fire incinerated 150 square miles and came close to wiping out the entire communities of Foresthill and Georgetown.
By contrast, the Angora Fire destroyed just five square miles in 2007. Yet it destroyed 254 homes and 75 businesses, cost the local economy a billion dollars and left a scar on the landscape that lingers today. If a super-fire of the size we’ve seen in other parts of this district were to strike the Tahoe Basin, it could decimate this lake and its surroundings for a generation to come.
The alarms are ringing all around us. The number of acres burned by wildfire in the Lake Tahoe Basin has increased each decade since 1973, including a ten-fold increase over the past decade. Eighty percent of the Tahoe Basin forests are now densely and dangerously overgrown. At lower elevations, there are now four times the number of trees compared to historic conditions. Modelling by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit warns that in two thirds of the forest, conditions now exist for flame size and intensity that are explosive.
Just last week, one of our Tahoe Fire Chiefs told me, “Good forest management IS good forest protection.” Or put more bluntly, excess timber comes out of the forest one way or the other. It is either carried out or it is burned out. The House has already passed comprehensive legislation to restore sound forest management practices for our federal lands and I commend it to the Senate’s immediate action.
Ever since the last Tahoe Restoration Act expired, a successor bill focusing hundreds of millions of dollars on lake clarity has been introduced in every congressional session since 2009. Not one has moved off the floor of either house, during both Democratic and Republican majorities.
The good news is that lake clarity has improved on its own, with visibility increasing from an average of 64.4 feet in 2010 to 77.8 feet this year. The bad news is that forest fuel loads have continued to increase perilously in the same period.
The clarity of Tahoe’s water contributes uniquely to Tahoe’s beauty. We need to recognize that the greatest environmental threat to that clarity is a catastrophic fire the likes of which we are seeing right now on the southern end of this very same congressional district.
That is why I have introduced a version of the Tahoe Restoration Act in the House (in partnership with my Nevada colleague Mark Amodei) that focuses our resources on fire prevention and additional measures to protect the lake from the introduction of invasive species.
Some have tried to portray this as competition with the expansive Senate version aimed at lake clarity. It is not.
The House measure is specifically designed – after extensive input from fire districts throughout the Tahoe region – to reduce excess fuel loads in the Tahoe Basin before they burn. It streamlines the planning process that has severely hampered past attempts at forest management. It calls for new revenues generated within the Tahoe Basin to STAY in the Tahoe Basin for environmental improvements. It also augments efforts to protect the lake from invasive species that have already devastated many other lakes in the West.
But most importantly, the House bill is carefully crafted to fit within the budget parameters already set by Congress, which vastly improves the prospect of it actually being enacted.
After all, talk without action is just talk. Unless legislation addressing this crisis is actually enacted, all we have done is to waste precious time, and time is NOT our friend.
We can still see the scars from the Angora Fire today. The Rim Fire was 80 times larger and struck the same high-risk forest conditions that today surround Tahoe. When we consider what the landscape could look like at next year’s summit if the Tahoe Basin were to suffer a similar fate, we should realize how desperately important and urgent this issue is.
Next year, I hope we can say instead that a new era of scientific forest management and fire prevention is well underway, and that every year hence the danger of a Tahoe super-fire will be receding rather than growing.