Aug 20, 2019

Tahoe Summit

Lake Tahoe, California - August 19, 2019

Look around at the beauty that surrounds us.  By this time tomorrow, the scene could be very different: thick smoke, smoldering rubble, tons of ash falling all around us, fire crews desperately trying to stop a wall of fire moving up the basin.  All it takes is one match – or a lightning strike or a chain dragging along a highway or countless other ignition sources.

The town of Paradise began last November 8th just as we are here today.  The Camp Fire was 50 times the size of the Angora fire – a similar fire here would mean the utter destruction of Tahoe’s communities.

And beware: our forests are no different than those that surrounded Paradise.  A recent survey reported the Tahoe Basin carries four times its safe fuel density. 

Six years ago, I was at the command center at the King Fire the day the fire literally exploded.  That afternoon, the senior fire officials believed it would burn straight through the communities of Foresthill and Georgetown and on to the Tahoe Basin and they were powerless to stop it.  One of the senior firefighters told me, “Congressman, I can’t even get to this fire on the ground.  We used to have good timber roads – I could get equipment there – now all I can do is drop stuff from the air and pray to God the wind shifts.”  Fortunately, it did shift, or things would be very different here today.

A generation ago, we actively managed our forests to assure that tree density matched the ability of the land to support it.  Every year, US Forest Service foresters marked off excess timber and then sold it to the timber companies that removed it.  Today, well-intentioned environmental laws passed in the 1970’s make that process endlessly time consuming and ultimately cost prohibitive.

Those who tell us we just need more money forget that before these laws, harvesting excess federal timber didn’t cost us anything.  On the contrary, it brought in over a billion dollars a year – 25 percent went directly to local governments like Tahoe and the other 75 percent funded the entire U.S. Forest Service and paid for forest programs.  Today, forest management costs us $2 for every dollar it generates. 

Those who blame global warming should consider this: before the U.S. Forest Service was created, California lost between 4 ½ and 12 million acres to wildfire every year.  When the Forest Service actively managed the land, that figure dropped to a steady quarter million acres.  Last year, we lost 1.9 million acres.  That’s not a new normal.  That’s the old normal reasserting itself because we abandoned our forests to neglect.

And lest we forget, decaying or burning forests make a mockery of all the laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions.  Wildfires in the United States pump an estimated 290 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.  Healthy, growing forests absorb it.  Milling surplus trees sequesters their carbon indefinitely and renews the forest’s ability to store still more.

An untended forest is no different than an untended garden: it will grow and grow until it chokes itself to death and then fall victim to disease, pestilence, drought and ultimately catastrophic fire.  It takes more than a century for a forest to grow back and begin the cycle again.

The growing peril of poorly managed forests is the direct driver behind skyrocketing fire insurance premiums in mountain communities.  Insurance is how a market assigns a dollar value to the risk of a catastrophic loss.  As the risk goes up, the cost of insurance goes up.  When the risk becomes unacceptable, insurance becomes unavailable.

The good news is, we are turning the corner. 

Over the last few years, that’s what the debate at these Tahoe Summits has been about: whether to focus on active forest management and fire prevention.  That’s why I introduced the House version of the Tahoe Restoration Act in 2015.  The heart of that act was to streamline the permitting process so we could begin removing excess timber in the Tahoe Basin before it could burn.  Despite fierce opposition, we won that authority. 

I want to thank Jeff Marsolais, the Forest Supervisor of the Tahoe Basin Management Unit who is superbly implementing it. 

In order for the Forest Service to treat most acreage, under NEPA it takes an average of 4 ½ years and costs millions of dollars to produce an Environmental Impact Statement in excess of 500 pages.  Under the new authority granted by our legislation, Jeff and his team permitted the first project in less than four months with a 16-page report.  And the work is now proceeding. 

Our success here makes a powerful argument that the same expedited authority should be extended throughout the entire U.S. Forest Service System.

Last week, we hosted the annual conference of the Congressional Western Caucus here.  House and Senate members from across the country came here to see first-hand both the beauty and the threat to Tahoe.   

We toured the scar of the Angora Fire, where after 12 years, scrub brush has replaced what was once a forest.  We saw where the fire was stopped by properly thinned acreage in the urban interface.  And we saw the first 4,000 acre thinning project made possible under the new law.   

After many years of moving closer and closer to apocalypse, Tahoe can now start moving away from it.  Let’s pray there’s still time.

Tom McClintock
Tom`s Blog