To protect Lake Tahoe, promote healthy forests

Smoke from the King fire is visible across Lake Tahoe last year.
Smoke from the King fire is visible across Lake Tahoe last year. University of Nevada Reno

When elected officials from California and Nevada meet Monday for the 19th annual Lake Tahoe Summit, much attention will be given to the clarity of the lake and protecting the unique basin environment.

Part of the discussion must include the health of our national forests and their associated watersheds. As the 2007 Angora fire reminds us, no community, no matter how treasured, is immune to the effects of forest fire.

Over the past several decades, wildfire suppression and a reduction in active timber management on public lands have led to an increase in the severity of wildfires throughout the region.

Last year’s King fire in Placer and El Dorado counties, for example, burned more than 97,000 acres. Today, the charred landscape threatens to create massive soil erosion in the Rubicon River watershed, presenting significant risks to water supply, water quality and fishery habitat.

The wildfire situation is so chaotic that it has literally changed the composition and nature of the U.S. Forest Service.

Fighting wildland fires now consumes 52 percent of the Forest Service budget and increases each year. Staff designated as fire personnel – a quarter of the agency’s workforce in 1998 – now outnumber staff assigned to managing the forests.

Beyond the federal agencies are the local municipalities, service districts and private landowners left with the consequences of these natural disasters – environmental degradation, damage to water and energy infrastructure and ongoing fiscal impacts.

We believe that the Tahoe region’s congressional representatives should take the opportunity at the summit to agree to promote healthy forests and, by extension, protect our watersheds. A framework is in place with HR 2647, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2015.

This bill, which passed the U.S. House on July 9 with bipartisan support, contains several provisions that will improve management of federal lands throughout the West, including revisions to Forest Service funding for large wildfires, expedited environmental review for removal of dead trees, and direction to federal agencies to complete large restoration projects.

We encourage the Senate to pass HR 2647 without delay.

The watersheds that originate in the Sierra Nevada provide 60 percent of the developed water supply for California. With drought plaguing much of the western United States, the need to protect our mountain watersheds is more urgent than ever.

By taking bold, bipartisan action and passing a final forest management bill, we can implement an effective policy to address the needs of our forests and citizens.

Our congressional leaders can ensure that at next year’s Tahoe Summit, we can begin to witness the successes of a new era in forest management.

Andrew Fecko is director of resource development at the Placer County Water Agency. John Kingsbury is executive director of the Mountain Counties Water Resources Association.