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The Tahoe Matchbox

The Forest Service is running out of money, but creative partnerships might be the key to mitigating Tahoe’s increasing fire danger
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This past October, a small fire of unknown origin erupted in the El Dorado National Forest less than a mile to the south of popular Emerald Bay, burning 176 acres before a combination of timely rain and fire-fighting contained the blaze. Smaller fires like this are commonplace across the West — approximately 98 percent of the 68,151 wildland fires in 2015 were extinguished while still small — but it’s the top 2 percent of wildfires that are crippling the U.S. Forest Service.

Due to the increasing intensity and cost of wildfires, the Forest Service has shifted from devoting 16 percent of its budget to fire suppression in 1995 to more than 50 percent in 2015. As the fire suppression cost grows exponentially, every other sector of the Forest Service has experienced cut-backs to foot the growing fire bill, including, ironically, hazardous fuels reduction projects. This robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul style of budget management has come to be known as “fire borrowing.” In the drought-stricken matchbox of the Lake Tahoe Basin, of which 78 percent is public land managed by the Forest Service, it presents a growing problem.

“We, like the rest of the country, have seen reductions in available appropriation that support the non-wildfire programs,” said Jeff Marsolais, forest supervisor at Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU). “Normal appropriations that we have operated on — including fuels reduction appropriations that come through our standard budgeting process — have been subject to [fire borrowing].”

Steps taken at a federal level to solve the budget problem eventually trickle down to affect local USFS units like the LTBMU, but these actions move through the political process slowly. The most recent version of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, a bill designed to appropriate disaster funding for the worst 2 percent of wildfires, failed in the last session of congress. Although 2 percent may seem like a small chunk, this would have covered 30 percent of the Forest Service’s yearly budget, on average.

“The Forest Service right now is the only agency that is required to fund all emergency management out of our regularly appropriated budget,” said Jennifer Jones, USFS public affairs specialist. “Whatever the specifics are, somehow we need to fund and treat [fires] — for funding purposes — as natural disasters.”

With the growing threat of fire in the Tahoe Basin, due to tree mortality brought on by drought, bark beetle, and other factors, the LTBMU has drafted its own approach to the problem. This time-consuming, yet incredibly effective, approach to land management revolves around one of the most simple of human instincts: cooperation.

Unite and Conquer

“We really do have a remarkable partnership that operates in Lake Tahoe,” Marsolais said. “The whole goal is to look at the landscape, particularly around wildland fire response and treatment, and make sure we approach this with a cohesive unified strategy.”

The LTBMU works with a multitude of federal, state, local, and private agencies to address the many needs of Tahoe’s complex environment. The projects they spearhead range beyond fire and fuels management and extend into erosion control management, watershed restoration, forest management, and recreation management. The network of agencies that have come together in the basin has grown ever since the 1997 Lake Tahoe Summit and the creation of the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program (EIP). This summit led to the first Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, predecessor of the $415 million act that passed last month, and kickstarted a new generation of collaborative inter-agency land management projects. It also helped to create a federal relationship that has been vital in acquiring funds for the area.

According to a document provided by the LTBMU, since 1997 the federal government has provided a total of more than $633 million to support Lake Tahoe EIP projects, the majority of funding coming “directly from the sales of public lands in Nevada, through the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act (SNPLMA).” According to Marsolais, the LTRA will be funded in similar fashion, through BLM sales of lands surrounding Las Vegas.

The SNPLMA and other funds have been used to either complete or contract hand or mechanical thinning on 41 percent of federal Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) lands the Forest Service is responsible for inside the Basin, and approximately 29 percent of non-federal WUI. WUI refers to the 118,000 acres of land in the basin that provide a transition between unoccupied land and urban development. These areas are the most sensitive to fire, as was shown in the 2007 Angora Fire when 242 homes and 67 commercial structures within the basin were destroyed in the first two hours of the fire.

The EIP projects have been some of the most successful areas of partnership, but according to Marsolais, many of these projects funded through the LTRA and SNPLMA are approaching their completion. Some of the most progressive movements are actually happening right now, and involve cooperation with both federal and private organizations. Enter the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership.

The “All Lands” Approach

Lake Tahoe West is an interagency initiative of the LTBMU, National Forest Foundation, California Tahoe Conservancy, California State Parks, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, and Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, focused on restoring “The resilience of the West Shore’s forests, watersheds, recreational opportunities, and communities to such threats. The landscape includes 80,556 acres of federal, state, local, and private lands, from Emerald Bay to Squaw Valley,” according to the National Forest Foundation website.

“One of the unique things about that partnership is that we are sharing leadership with the Tahoe Conservancy and the National Forest Foundation,” Marsolais said. “It helps us with this great perspective on how to really make an impact on the landscape and not have those classic or traditional barriers that keep us from doing good work and being responsive to the public. It also helps us figure out ways to carry funding needs.”

According to Dorian Fougeres, California program manager at the National Forest Foundation, Lake Tahoe West is utilizing what’s come to be known as an “all lands” approach in the industry. It’s intended to go beyond typical fire treatment projects, and focus on the broad spectrum of forest needs such as watershed restoration, water quality, and recreation.

“We work across jurisdictional, and adhere more closely to geographical, boundaries,” said Fougeres. “It’s a notable and significant trend in how this business is approached.”

The typical approach to land management involves a public agency collaborating with other organizations to fund and focus on a project isolated to that agency’s jurisdiction. Lake Tahoe West is breaking the mold by establishing communication between the major land management organizations in Tahoe so they can focus on a much larger area. This allows each agency to adopt a strategy based on the boundaries set by the natural landscape, and not district lines.

Because of the increasingly volatile fire potential, the theme of this new initiative is increasing its “pace and scale” in a game of forest ecology catch-up. Decades of fire exclusion, logging, and other land management practices have paired with climate change, increasingly dense and unhealthy forests, and rapidly growing human populations to fuel a dangerous situation in the Tahoe Basin.

According to a release by the USFS centered around the Pacific Southwest titled Ecological Restoration: Engaging Partners in an All Lands Approach, “Only an environmental restoration program of unprecedented scale can alter the direction of current trends.”

Lake Tahoe West is taking on this responsibility, and modeling itself after one of the first goals outlined in the document: “Work together to achieve a collaborative and financially supported effort among forest land management agencies, private land owners, and the public to implement a large scale restoration program to accelerate the scale and pace of forest restoration activities on both public and private lands.”

State of the Forest

The probability of a devastating fire in the western United States is no longer a matter of if, but a matter of when, and how big. Since 1980, the average length of the fire season has increased by approximately 78 days to currently 300 days a year for most western states. Wildland fires also burn about twice as much land as they did 40 years ago, and burn with a previously unknown intensity.

“A lot of our firefighters are telling us they’re seeing the most extreme fire behavior they’ve seen in their decades-long careers fighting fire,” said USFS publicist Jones. “When you have that kind of extreme fire behavior it takes longer to control fires, and it takes more resources — firefighters, aircraft, engines — to control them.”

Tahoe is as vulnerable as the rest of the West to large destructive fires. According to Marsolais, “expanded tree mortality related to bark beetle and other drought stress in the Lake Tahoe Basin … is only serving to increase the wildland fire potential issues moving forward.” Even the Emerald Fire described above had the potential to ignite the matchbox in a big way.

“It had heavy winds on that fire, and all the potential to do so much more than it actually did. We got lucky with rain; we had incredible firefighting that was going on through the partnerships,” Marsolais said. “That’s the kind of burn intensity that could happen if we don’t continue to do what we’re doing, not just in terms of suppressing those fires, particularly in urban areas, but also looking at fire as a natural tool on the landscape.”

The Emerald Fire proved to be an excellent case study on the effectiveness of the fuels reduction projects taking place in the basin. There was a previously treated area at the toe of the fire, and Marsolais says you can “almost walk the boundary of where the non-treated area burned and where the treated area burned, and you can see the difference in tree mortality related directly to wildfire.”

Monitoring and follow-up in previously treated areas will also be crucial. As Jones put it, “It’s like mowing your lawn; you can’t just mow it once and call it good for the summer … you have to maintain the land that you’ve already done treatments on.”

No matter how much work is put into fuels reduction, wildland fires happen, and catching them early is imperative. One modern initiative headed by the Tahoe Prosperity Center, the UNR seismological laboratory, and the Bureau of Land Management is working on placing fire-spotting cameras around the Basin. This project is called AlertTahoe Fire Prevention System, and it uses both human observation as well as an artificial intelligence system programmed to recognize smoke.

AlertTahoe now has over 10 cameras in the basin, and hopes to have at least 20 to 25 in the near future.

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February 14, 2019