Tahoe Regulators Say Fire a Greater Threat than Pollution

Published February 1, 2004

The Tahoe Regional Planning Authority (TRPA), established by Congress in 1969 to safeguard Lake Tahoe’s breathtaking clarity and natural beauty, has for the first time concluded that fire, rather than pollution, represents the greatest threat to Lake Tahoe.

“Our battle cry now should be wildfires,” said Coe Swobe, a former Nevada lawmaker who helped establish the agency and currently serves on its governing board. “In my opinion, I don’t think there’s any more important or critical issue facing the Tahoe Basin right now.”

“I can tell you that private property owners are scared right now,” agreed John Falk of the Tahoe-Sierra Board of Realtors. “It’s a tinderbox.”

The governing board agreed with Swobe, and instructed its staff on December 17 to alter its workplan for the 2004 year to place a greater emphasis, and more financial focus, on forest thinning.

The decision marks a significant departure from prior years, when the TRPA focused primarily on reducing motor vehicle emissions, soil erosion, and runoff into Lake Tahoe. It is also an indictment, of sorts, of the anti-logging rhetoric and lobbying by groups such as the Sierra Club, which bear some of the blame for the wildfires that destroyed millions of acres of forests in California last summer.

Now, the governing board is working to ensure that catastrophic fires, like the ones that ravaged Southern California last year, do not take a similar toll on the Lake Tahoe Basin.

“It could happen here,” said Reno Fire Department Chief of Operations Marty Scheuerman. “Proportionally, it could be just as devastating.”

Scheuerman recommended that, in conjunction with the new emphasis on fire prevention, TRPA establish a plan to ensure county property does not become fire-prone due to oversight or neglect. Scheuerman also recommended TRPA ensure the availability of standby National Guard firefighting aircraft during periods of extreme fire danger.

“I think they’re going to have to be very proactive,” said Scheuerman. “The problem is easy to define. It’s the solution that’s the hard part.”

A working model for the new programs is a recent successful thinning of dead and insect-infested timber on federal lands near Lake Tahoe. Under the TRPA’s 2004 plan, similar efforts would restore the health and sustainability of forests on public and private lands alike. Particular attention will be paid to forests near homes and businesses.

A comprehensive fire prevention program is expected to cost TRPA up to $26.5 million over a five-year period. The governing board is hoping funds from the Southern Nevada Land Management Act and the federal Healthy Forests Initiative will pick up much of the bill.

Many major environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Friends of the Earth, opposed the Healthy Forests Initiative.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].