Aug 19, 2014

Fire: The Greatest Environmental Threat

Lake Tahoe Summit

South Lake Tahoe, California

August 19, 2014


I want to thank Senator Feinstein for hosting this year’s summit and for directing its attention to the threat of catastrophic wildfire, the greatest natural threat facing the Lake Tahoe region.  It utterly destroys forests and their habitats; it makes a mockery of all of our air and water quality laws; it threatens life and property throughout our mountain communities.  It consumes vast resources to fight and it depresses tourism and the local economy that depends on it.

In recent years, our forests have been devastated by a dramatic increase in wildfires, as well as pestilence and disease. 

The facts are clear: over the last three decades, we have seen a dramatic decline in excess timber removed from the mountains and a corresponding increase in acreage destroyed by forest fire in the same period.  

As one forester put it years ago, “The excess timber will come out of the forests one way or the other.  It will either be carried out or it will be burned out – but it WILL come out.”  A generation ago, we carried it out and we enjoyed healthy and fire-resistant forests AND a thriving economy.  The auctions of excess timber provided a steady stream of revenue to our government to help pay for the proper management of our forests. 

Tahoe still bears the scars of the Angora Fire of 2007.  Last year, the Sierra suffered the biggest fire in its history, destroying 400 square miles of forest land.  Timely salvage of the fire-killed timber could have provided millions of dollars for forest restoration.  Instead, the timber rots in place while environmental reviews for salvage drag on a full year later.

For a generation, we have imposed increasingly restrictive obstacles to proper thinning, harvesting and fuel reduction in our forests, and we now suffer the result.  Ironically, policies designed to preserve habitats for endangered species ultimately resulted in the incineration of those very habitats. 

This ought to be self-evident: there is no greater threat to the environment and economy of the Tahoe Basin than a catastrophic forest fire – and our efforts should be prioritized to place this at the top of the list for policy change.

I fully endorse the objections raised by the Basin Fire Chiefs to the Basin Management Plan. 

The Fire Chiefs are absolutely correct: catastrophic wildfire – especially near our communities – is NOT a forest management tool.  It IS an imminent threat to life, property, wildlife, habitats, watersheds, our forests, our economy -- and it ought to be treated accordingly. 

The tragedy of the 2012 Reading fire – when a fire was deliberately allowed to explode out of control in the name of fire ecology despite urgent pleas from fire officials – must never be repeated.

The right of home owners to clear defensible perimeters established by fire professionals should be guaranteed.

Excess marketable timber should be sold and removed from the forests, with the proceeds used to provide for forest restoration and the reduction of ladder fuels.  The sale of excess timber and the use of biomass generation can substantially supplement the cost of fuels reduction, making the proper management of our forests cost-effective once again.   

The escalating costs of fighting fires should be treated as other natural disasters and not funded by shorting fuel reduction budgets. 

And while we’re at it, isn’t it long past time that the debts of the Nevada Fire Safe Council were paid and the federal bureaucratic pettifogging ceased, so that the contractors and our fire protection districts can get back to their vital work? 

The Angora Fire gave us a taste of the danger posed by catastrophic wildfire, and I compliment Sen. Feinstein for choosing to focus on this threat in this year’s Tahoe Summit.  The policy of the last thirty years has failed and failed miserably, and the situation today cries out for return of the sound forest management practices that once minimized the risk of fire and maximized the health of Tahoe’s forests, the safety of Tahoe’s community and the prosperity of Tahoe’s economy.

Tom McClintock
Tom`s Blog