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One Spark
from Disaster

by Holly Lipke Fretwell

s the road dropped out of the Sierras into the Lake Tahoe basin below, the scenery made an abrupt change from healthy, green forests to dead and dying stands of timber. The congressmen on their way to the June 1997 Presidential Summit on the problems facing the lake and surrounding basin were taken aback by what they saw. Later, during a session on forest health, U.S. Senator Richard Bryan of Nevada exclaimed, "This forest looks like hell!" It appeared as if someone had drawn an imaginary line across the landscape and then nurtured the trees on one side, while destroying those on the other.

The Tahoe Basin was once forested with well-spaced Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines. Moderate-intensity wildfires burned thousands of acres each year, preventing shade-tolerant fir from taking hold in the soils of the basin. In a tragedy of the commons, early settlers and silver miners razed most of the pines. Ensuing years of fire suppression and restricted harvest enabled fire-prone fir to grow in dense stands, replacing the earlier pines. The Forest Service estimates that basin forests are 82 percent denser today than in 1928. Now, after eight years of drought, bark beetles and disease have ravaged overstocked stands, killing more than 80 percent of the trees.

Lake Tahoe, known as one of the clearest, deepest lakes in the world, is in jeopardy. Forest management practices on surrounding federal lands have put at risk the very qualities they were supposed to preserve: the integrity of the forest and the clarity of the lake below. Environmental regulations have delayed some management actions and restricted timber harvests and forest treatments.

Meanwhile, this tinderbox of dead and dying trees is at grave risk to wildfire that could threaten the basin with even greater erosion and air quality degradation, while destroying homes and vacation getaways sprinkled throughout the forest. The potential for loss of property and life to wildfire is higher than nearly anywhere else in California.

To prevent erosion from wildfire, the Forest Service has estimated that 10,000 acres need to be treated annually--far more than the 200 acres now treated each year. Only through selective thinning and prescribed burn can the risk of conflagration be reduced.

On adjacent lands just above the national forest, the trees remain vigorous and healthy. With a similar history of early forest clearing followed by fire suppression, these stands have escaped the bug infestation because they have been intensively managed to ensure vigor and high productivity.

The Tahoe Basin is not an aberration. It is typical of many federally managed forests in the West. About 39 million acres of national forests are at risk of fire. While some of our public forests meet high standards for health and vigor, many more are sick and ailing. Often the problem can be traced to obstacles that frustrate managers who are attempting to apply sound science to their management practices. Among them are:


Land management agencies are dependent upon Congress for their budgets. They must respond to political pressures to protect their budgets. Land managers may have to oversee expensive pet projects supported by influential congressional delegations, while other public resources under their care deteriorate for lack of funding. Standard forest management practices such as harvesting, thinning, and prescribed burns may have to be canceled or postponed when constituents complain.


During the last 30 years, more than 200 new regulations have been passed that impede managers from responding promptly to changing forest conditions. The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Federal Land and Management Policy Act, the Multiple Use and Sustained Yield Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Public Range Improvement Act, among others, have the expressed goal of protecting the environment. But in some cases they have the opposite effect. Public comment periods and citizen appeals allowed under NEPA can result in lengthy delays to land management decisions that are critical to forest health.

Short-Term Goals.

Federal land managers are required to meet dozens of short-term goals for habitat and stream restoration, road construction and maintenance, timber sales, recreational visits and more. A manager's annual performance is measured by quantifying these goals. How many miles of roads were constructed? How many million board feet of lumber were sold? Managers meet such goals by dedicating resources to short-term projects. For example, a large cut that produces a high volume of timber at a low cost might be the best way to meet an annual goal.

Lack of Positive Incentives.

Federal land managers lack positive incentives to respond to consumer demands. Even today, most recreational users pay trivial or no fees, giving managers little incentive to change management practices. Instead, managers respond first to Congress, which funds their budgets. NJ

This essay is excerpted with permission from Forests: Do We Get What We Pay For?, a new study published by the Poltical Economy Research Center (website:, Bozeman, Montana. Ms. Fretwell is a research associate with PERC..


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