Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Message from Rep. Doolittle

Recent Editorial by John T. Doolittle:

Mountain Democrat

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The recent Angora fire near Lake Tahoe should have opened everyone’s eyes as to the need for better forest management. While this fire devastated the lives of the people who lost their homes, and has damaged the fragile ecosystem, it could have been much worse. It was through the magnificent efforts of the firefighters and other public safety personnel, paired with the removal and management of forest fuels that prevented this forest fire from becoming a much worse catastrophe. Now that the fire is 100 percent contained, and the imminent threat is diffused, we must look toward the future, because the long-term threat still remains.

While many of the extreme environmentalists manipulate the facts and claim that proper forest management is really pillaging nature, reality simply contradicts this assertion. Fire experts, including those on the front lines of fighting this fire have consistently stated, "You can see where responsible forest fuels management was done and where it was not", meaning where the fire could be managed versus where it ravaged neighborhoods.

Several years ago, I sponsored with Sen. Feinstein and the Tahoe Congressional delegation from the State of Nevada the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, which was signed into law by President Clinton on November 13, 2000. This bill authorized $300 million over ten years for environmental restoration in the Tahoe Basin, including activities to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. The language of the bill specifically noted that "Approximately 40 percent of the trees in the Lake Tahoe basin are either dead or dying, and the increased quantity of combustible fuels has significantly increased the risk of catastrophic forest fire in the Lake Tahoe basin." Recognizing this reality, I specifically placed fire risk reduction activities in the list of priorities to be considered in allocating funding authorized in the new law. The bill also required that the Forest Service coordinate with state and local agencies, including local fire departments and volunteer groups to conduct these activities, described as "prescribed burning, mechanical treatment, road obliteration or reconstruction, and other activities…the Secretary determines to be appropriate."

Environmental groups have been preventing for years the necessary use of mechanical thinning in stream environment zones and in zones near urban areas. The ash and soot from the Angora fire are real examples of the kind of pollutants that have become possible in the streams since proper thinning was not done. I witnessed this pollution first-hand in my recent visit to the site. All the efforts by the likes of various environmental groups have clearly resulted in one giant mess and created a problem far worse than what their ill-conceived policies intended to protect against. Filthy char-filled streams are now pouring out of the South Lake Tahoe mountains into our lake in great part due to their interference with proper maintenance. It is completely appropriate that they be held accountable. They need to be more reasonable towards mechanical thinning efforts going forward. To his credit, Executive Director Harold Stinger of the often controversial Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, realizes this and has admitted that it is in the stream zones that the Angora fire found its primary path and that "he wants to learn from that and see if there is something he was doing to hamper with fire prevention efforts." It is my hope that officials at the TRPA may wish to reevaluate their policies in light of what we have learned from the fire as well. I think the hundreds who lost their homes in the fire, would likely agree that maybe the area’s popular slogan should be changed to, "Keep Tahoe Safe and Blue." And we can have a safer and more beautiful Tahoe by conducting the thinning more aggressively in the future.

Looking at a beautifully-managed forest you will see aged trees, healthy new growth, and an overall vigorous forest, which is much better than a charred, burnt and ecologically-damaged area for the next 20 years. This fire is certainly not the last one that we shall see, and the real questions is, are we going to wake up and take notice and make proper forest management a real priority. The Lake Tahoe region is one of the most beautiful and highly-visited areas in the nation, and we must be responsible stewards to protect this unique area from future forest fires.

Congressman John Doolittle represents California’s 4th District, which includes El Dorado County.

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