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Know the West

At Tahoe, it's agreed: old growth gets to stay


The residents of the Lake Tahoe Basin want their old-growth trees, dead or alive.

A regulation that took effect last month all but prohibits the harvest of trees over 30 inches in diameter, whether they are on public or private land. Because it applies to both green and standing dead trees, the Tahoe ordinance expands existing U.S. Forest Service regulations that bar felling green trees over 30 inches. Now even the Forest Service must get a local permit to log in the Tahoe Basin.

The logging limits adopted by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency are designed to promote and perpetuate the old-growth ponderosa forest that once graced the basin, said Steve Chilton, an agency planner. "People came together and said these big old trees have value beyond their value on a logging truck." Tahoe's old-growth ordinance grew out of a local consensus group that has been discussing forest ecosystem issues since 1992. Members of the Forest Health Consensus Group were driven together by the specter of a dying forest that began haunting the Tahoe hillsides in the late 1980s. As many as one out of three trees turned rust-colored, the victims of bark beetles.

Although most people recognized the fire danger posed by these standing dead trees, many opposed Forest Service proposals to log them. The ordinance permits the Forest Service to continue prescribed burns on 1,000 acres every fall, pruning the forest so trees have room to grow to large diameters. However, in other respects, the old-growth ordinance is a tree-by-tree management plan, since it allows the removal of hazardous trees with a permit but acknowledges that old-growth trees are valuable to the forest even after they have died.

Although that runs counter to the traditional Forest Service practice of salvaging every commercial sawlog possible, the federal agency can live with it, said Joe Oden, a Forest Service planner with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Agency officials were a part of the group that backed the new regulations. "It's not as though we were planning to log a lot of big trees," Oden said.

The first-of-its kind ordinance will be enforced by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, an unusual body created by Congress and an agreement between California and Nevada. It may herald a growing national preference for tall trees over sawlogs.

As public values shift from forest products to forest experiences, recreation is replacing commercial logging as the primary activity on America's 155 national forests, said Jim Lyons, an undersecretary with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck has clearly embraced the change with his focus on land stewardship and watershed restoration (HCN, 4/27/98). Restoring the Tahoe Basin forest to its previous grandeur will take science, innovation and time, said Jaime Ziegler, a Tahoe conservationist and active member of the Forest Health Consensus Group. "This is a step - a huge step, but just a beginning," Ziegler said.

The ordinance, which expires in two years, allows time to inventory and map each old-growth tree in the area. The ordinance has loopholes, said Jeff Cutler, assistant executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. Whether they are big enough to drive a logging truck through depends largely on Chilton, the Tahoe agency planner who will interpret the ordinance for landowners seeking permits to log.

You can call ...

* Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 702/588-4547, ext. 265

* U.S. Forest Service, 530/573-2653;

* League to Save Lake Tahoe, 530/546-5410.