Catastrophic fire is the single greatest environmental threat to Lake Tahoe, and yet for many years, the Congressional focus has been on lake clarity. Lake clarity has been improving on its own in recent years – without congressional action – suggesting that natural environmental factors have a much greater role than human activity. Meanwhile, by abandoning sound forest management that requires constant thinning of excess timber, the fuel loads in the Tahoe Basin have become extremely dangerous.
For this reason, I introduced HR 3382 as a more focused approach than legislation that has languished in the Senate for years. The principal difference is that the Senate version has no provision for fire prevention – only vaguely defined environmental goals such as maintaining biological diversity, improving wetland quality, storm water management, trout recovery and climate change and has nothing to do with fire prevention. The House bill is focused on fire prevention by reducing excess fuel loads before they burn. The Senate bill prioritizes expenditures, and fire prevention isn’t even on the list! The closest thing to it, “Forest Health” is priority 7 AFTER air quality, fisheries, noise, recreation, scenic resources and soil conservation.
Either we’re serious about fire prevention or we’re not. The House bill is. The Senate bill is not.
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.
HR 3382 Mark-Up – House Committee on Natural Resources – October 7, 2015
I want to thank the committee for taking up HR 3382, the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act Amendment of 2015 that Congressman Amodei and I have introduced.
Lake Tahoe’s value to the entire nation is obvious to anyone who visits it. But today, the lake is imminently menaced by the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
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 last decade.
- Eighty percent of the Tahoe Basin forests are now densely and dangerously overgrown.
- At lower elevations, there is now four times the number of trees per acre than when the forests were properly managed.
- Modeling by the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service warns that in two thirds of the forest, conditions now exist for flame size and intensity that are explosive.
Ever since the last Tahoe Restoration Act expired, a successor bill focusing hundreds of millions of dollars of 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, in large measure due to excessive cost.
The good news is that lake clarity has improved on its own, with visibility increasing from an average of 64 feet in 2010 to 78 feet this year. The bad news is that forest fuel loads have continued to increase perilously in the same period.
This 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 provides for the categorical exclusion of collaborative fuel reduction projects consistent with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit land and resource management plan; it provides for binding arbitration to expeditiously settle disputes, and it calls for funds generated by timber sales and other fee-based revenues to stay in the Tahoe Basin to provide for further fuels management and other improvements. It also authorizes $4 million annually on top of existing funding to accomplish this goal, with priority given to those jurisdictions that have already adopted defensible space plans.
It also addresses several key land management issues. Currently, the Tahoe Basin has 3,500 urban lots under its management, and the poor condition of these parcels is a source of constant complaints. Further, hundreds of non-federal land holdings dot the National Forest, which greatly complicates land management. This bill allows the sale of urban lots with the revenues dedicated to acquisition of these checker-board parcels entirely surrounded by the National Forest.
The second most pressing environmental threat to the lake is from invasive species, most particularly quagga mussels, which have devastated other lakes in the West. This measure supplements and expands the current inspection regimen of boats launched into the Lake, it allows for local and state inspection and decontamination stations; it provides that fees pay for these inspections and it authorizes $800,000 annually for additional invasive species management.
In addition, this measure will seek to more fully involve local governments in land acquisition decisions that directly impact their communities and to promote tourism in the region by prioritizing public access.
I will be offering an amendment to address concerns raised by the administration and also a provision to provide for eradication of two non-native invasive plants that are now infesting the Tahoe Keys at the southern end of the lake before it spreads further.
But most importantly, this bill is carefully crafted to fit within the budget parameters already set by Congress, which vastly improves the prospect of it actually being enacted.
I want to thank my colleague Congressman Amodei, whose District includes the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe, for his assistance and we look forward to seeing this bill enacted as soon as possible to protect the long term future of Lake Tahoe.