New Lake Tahoe fire plan released on eve of 23rd annual Tahoe Summit

by Brian Bahouth

US Senator from California Diane Feinstein was the master of ceremonies for the 23rd annual Lake Tahoe Summit held this year at Valhalla Tahoe on the lake’s eastern shore in El Dorado County. The first summit was convened in 1997. Harry Reid, Al Gore and President Bill Clinton spoke at the event meant to affirm the commitment of Lake Tahoe’s myriad stakeholders, and thus the event continues.

Wildfire prevention and climate change were the topics of the day, and every official to speak at today’s summit spoke about the pressing need to control climate change except one, Congressman Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents California’s 4th congressional district. McClintock is a stalwart denier of anthropogenic climate change. All of the California Tahoe shoreline is in his district. Also on the agenda, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak offered comments. California Democrat, Congressman John Garamendi spoke. Barnie Gyant, deputy regional forester of the US Forest Services Pacific Southwest Region offered his perspective. Nevada US senator from Nevada Catherine Cortez Maesto addressed the gathering. California Governor Gavin Newsome was the keynote speaker.

Diane Feinstein said she spent time on Lake Tahoe when she was a young adult visiting from the Bay Area. Feinstein recalled the summit’s origins.

“The first Tahoe summit was held in 1997 when Senator Harry Reid invited President Bill Clinton to hold the presidential forum at incline village. President Clinton announced a major federal effort to restore our magnificent clear water lake. As I said last night, this is only one of two clear water lakes in the entire world. The other is Lake Baikal in Russia. But as this lake stands, it truly is a national treasure and a very specific wonder that it continues to exist. Unfortunately, the clarity of Tahoe has been declining. After the ’97 summit, both sides Nevada and California came together in what has become a private public partnership that has endures to this day. I call this partnership Team Tahoe. I’m very proud of being a member of it and I’d like to ask all of you to join. Team Tahoe has invested more than $2 billion in the Lake Tahoe Basin, including more than $730 million dollars from the federal government. That money has funded nearly 700 restoration projects.”

Barnie Gyant is deputy regional forester of the US Forest Services Pacific Southwest Region. While introducing Gyant, Senator Feinstein reminded the audience that 80 percent of the land in the Tahoe Basin is managed by the federal government.

Gyant told attendees that it is an honor to be part of the team of more than 80 partners working to preserve Lake Tahoe. Gyant began his comments by saying no one agency, including the federal government, can tackle the challenges that threaten the environmental health of Lake Tahoe. To emphasize his point, Gyant talked about the money invested in the lake since the first summit was convened in 1997.

“Between 1997 and 2018, the federal government, all agencies, have contributed $730 million dollars, the state of California $868 million, state of Nevada, $182 million, local governments $144 million, private funds $370 million. That’s a commitment of something that’s important. It’s also just a great example that when we, the big we plural, come together, we can really accomplish a lot with the world and the landscape.”

Mr. Gyant acknowledged climate change as a distinct threat to the forest and lake. He also talked about the work of the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (TFFT). In 2007, the Angora Fire destroyed 254 homes and structures and burned 3,100 acres within hours on Lake Tahoe’s south shore. A unified approach to fire mitigation and management was confounded by the fact that a tangle of governmental agencies manage land on the lake. In 2008, a broad coalition of state, federal and tribal agencies formed the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team. “Treatment” means that teams literally rake up the forest floor into slash piles that are either removed or burned during the winter. The TFFT also removes dead and dying trees.  Yesterday, the TFFT released The Lake Tahoe Basin Forest Action Plan.

TFFT Lake Tahoe Basin Fores… by Brian Bahouth on Scribd

Supervisor Gyant said the Tahoe Restoration Act of 2012 helped make the Tahoe area forests less likely to experience catastrophic wildfire.

“Led by our partners, local fire protection districts, CalFire, and many others have treated over 77,500 acres,” Gyant said. “That includes protecting communities and doing work along major infrastructure, such as our power lines.”

California Republican Congressman Tom McClintock represents California’s 4th congressional district, which includes the entire California side of the lake. McClintock is a denier of anthropogenic climate change. He began his comments with a horror story.

“Look around at all the beauty that surrounds us here and then consider this. By this time tomorrow, this beautiful scene could be very different, thick smoke, smoldering rubble, tons of ash falling all around us, fire crews desperately trying to stop a wall of fire moving up the basin, and all it takes is this,” McClintock said and held up a red-tipped stick match to the audience.

McClintock recalled his visit to the fire-fighting command center for the King fire, a wildfire that burned from September 13, 2014 to October 9 that same year.

“The town of Paradise began last November 8, just like we are here today. The Camp fire was 50 times larger than the Angora fire. A similar fire here would mean the utter destruction of all of Tahoe’s communities. And be aware, our forests are no different than those that surrounded Paradise that day. A recent survey reported that the Tahoe Basin carries four times its safe fuel density. Six years ago I was at the command center of the King fire the day that it literally exploded. That afternoon, the senior fire officials thought that it was going to burn straight through the communities of Forest Hill and Georgetown and on into the Tahoe Basin and they were powerless to stop it. One of the senior firefighters told me, ‘congressman, I can’t even get to this fire on the ground. We used to have good timber roads, I could get equipment out there. Right now all I can do is drop stuff from the air and pray to God the wind shifts.’ Fortunately, it did shift or things would be very different here today.

“A generation ago we actively managed our forests to assure that tree density matched the ability of the land to support it. Every year, US Forest Service foresters marked off excess timber and then sold it to timber companies that removed it. Well intentioned environmental laws were passed in the 1970s and make that process endlessly time consuming and ultimately cost prohibitive. And those who tell you we just need more money. Don’t forget that before these laws, harvesting excess timber didn’t cost us anything. On the contrary, it brought in over a billion dollars a year. Twenty-five percent of that went directly into local governments like Tahoe, and the other 75 percent funded the entire US Forest Service and paid for forest programs. But today, forest management costs us $2.00 for every dollar that it generates.”

Every other speaker at the summit spoke directly to the effects of climate change. McClintock addressed a changing climate from his skeptical perspective.

“Those who blame global warming should consider this. Before the US Forest Service was created to actively manage our lands, California lost between 4 and a half and 12 million acres to wildfire every year. When the Forest Service actively managed the land, that figure dropped to a very steady quarter of a million acres. Last year we lost 1.9 million acres. That’s not the new normal. That’s the old normal reasserting itself because we have abandoned our forests to neglect. And lest we forget, decaying or burning forests make a mockery of all of the laws aimed at reducing carbon emissions. Wildfires in the United States pump an estimated 290 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. Healthy growing forests absorb carbon. Milling surplus trees sequesters their carbon indefinitely and renews the forests ability to store still more.

“An untended forest is no different than an untended garden it will grow and grow until it strangles itself to death and then fall victim to disease, pestilence, drought, and ultimately catastrophic fire. It takes centuries for a forest to grow back and begin that cycle again. The growing peril of poorly managed forests is the direct driver behind skyrocketing fire insurance premiums in our mountain communities. Insurance is how our market assigns a dollar value to the risk of catastrophic loss. As the risk goes up, the cost of insurance goes up, and when the risk becomes unacceptable, insurance becomes unavailable.

“The good news is I think we’re turning the corner over the last few years as what this discussion has been at these summits whether to focus on active force management and fire prevention. That’s why I introduced the house version of the Whole Restoration Act in 2015. The heart of that act was to streamline the permitting process, so we could begin removing excess timber from the Tahoe Basin before it could burn. Despite fierce opposition, we won that authority in the act.”

The congressman made the case for expanding the expedited authority be expanded throughout the US Forest system. The Trump Administration, through executive order, is moving to relax the National Environmental Policy Act, the mechanism by which officials gauge the environmental impacts of projects on federal lands. McClintock is a long-time critic of NEPA.

“In order for the Forest Service to treat most acreage under NEPA, it takes an average four and a half years. It costs millions of dollars to produce an environmental impact statement in excess of 500 pages. Under the new authority granted by our legislation. Forest manager Jeff Marsolais and his team permitted the first project in less than four months with a 16 page report. And that work is now proceeding. Our success here makes a powerful argument that the same expedited authority should be extended throughout the US Forest system.”

John Garamendi has represented California’s 3rd congressional district since 2009, an area in the north-central part of the state that includes all of Colusa, Sutter, and Yuba counties and takes in parts of Sacramento, Yolo, Lake, Solano and Glenn counties. The district is adjacent to California’s 1st congressional district, home to the town of Paradise.

“I was talking to Jeff (Jeff Schladow, director of the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center) at UC Davis earlier, something that we talked about two years ago as I was out on the lake, and he said, ‘You know, there’s over 3000 feet of sediment in this lake, one of the very few places in the world that has stored the ecological history of the world, over perhaps 2 million years.’ It’s there, all the things that have occurred in the world, the fires, the floods, the pre-dinosaur era, the dinosaur era, the post dinosaur, and the human era. It’s all out there. It’s out there in the sediments that over the years have been laid down, as all of the activities of the ecology, the weather, the storms, the snows, or the droughts, and the deluges.

“You have on this stage, and in this audience an extraordinary group of people that are doing everything they possibly can to keep this lake clean, blue, cold, and clear.  Projects that you heard here just a few moments ago, from the governor’s, from the senators, all of that is now the 1 million millimeter of the sediment that’s in that lake. The human era, our era. The generations of the last four or five, not the Washoes who were light on the land, could touch the earth lightly.

“But in recent generations, all of that, the degradation that occurred here during the mining period, the fires, the over development. All of that is recorded out there. And right now we’re laying down a record of extraordinary future destruction. We’re putting into the atmosphere carbon and unprecedented amounts of methane that are clearly leading to climate change. And that too, is recorded on the top of that 3000 feet of sediment. I don’t know at the end of this, if anybody will go out there and record our failure as human beings in this generation to address the most fundamental challenge that this earth has. If we’re not willing to do it, if we as elected officials and you’ve heard from four of them that have already committed themselves in their work, and if your elected officials are not willing at the county, the city, the state and the federal level, to address this issue, they ought not be an office because this is our challenge.

“So we have an obligation. We say we represent you. We also represent future generations. And we have a challenge. We will go about our work will, do what we need to do to prevent the erosion and deal with the fires. But the fundamental profoundly important issue is are we willing, as this individual, as you as an individual, as an elected official, as a community, as a nation, are we willing to do what has to be done? I believe you are, we must do this. And if somebody wants to stand before you and ask for your vote, you ask them are they willing to take on this challenge? If they’re not look for somebody else?

Senator Catherine Cortez Maesto said climate change is inextricably woven into the many environmental threats to Lake Tahoe. In preparing her remarks, the senator said she looked back to 1997 when Bill Clinton and Al Gore offered remarks at the very first Tahoe summit.

“Out of curiosity, I looked back at what they said to see what’s changed over the past two decades. I saw that they touched on many of the issues that we continue to make progress on today. They talked about the clarity of this glorious, gorgeous blue water. They mentioned the joy of recreation and tourism at Tahoe and the importance of restoring our forests and preventing wildfires. They discuss the issues of transportation and development. They emphasize the economy and the environment are not in opposition, that they go hand in hand. But there is one thing that they barely touched on 23 years ago, and that was climate change.

“Oh, they knew it. The President mentioned it twice. He called it perhaps our biggest challenge of all as we move into a new century, but it wasn’t their focus. It was a footnote. Today, we do not have the luxury of sidestepping climate change. Especially not when this administration has abandoned America’s crucial global leadership on this issue. We cannot put off solutions to carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. We can’t ignore the effects of climate change that are visible around us every single day.”

Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak offered brief remarks and emphasized that the summit had afforded him the opportunity to meet with California’s new Governor Gavin Newsome.

“He (Gavin Newsome) and I had an opportunity to talk about some of the critical issues that are facing the lake and facing the basin,” Sisolak said. “And we are concerned as the senator just said regarding the clarity and the wildfire potential. We’re doing everything we can to get on a cooperative basis to address those issues. Nevada remains firmly committed to protecting and restoring Lake Tahoe, as well as collaborating with all of our federal, state, local and private partners in achieving our mutual goals.”

Gavin Newsome is the governor of California. During his remarks he said he has an enduring connection to Lake Tahoe in that his mom was a lifeguard at a nearby Incline Village pool when she met his father. The new governor praised the bygone era of bipartisanship that started the effort to preserve Lake Tahoe.

“One of the wonderful things about being here is that people like me come and go, but this commitment continues. The partnerships continue going back to Ronald Reagan, nineteen hundred and sixty nine and Laxalt (Republican Paul Laxalt was governor of Nevada from 1967 to 1971), the fact that they committed to the TRPA and committed to this effort to see Democrats and Republicans as the senator said, working together across their differences. We recognize that old African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, you have to go together. That commitment is demonstrable. That commitment is alive here today with a new senator from Nevada, new governor from Nevada, new governor from California, a commitment to reconcile our interdependence. There’s no leak, as they say, when you’re out on a boat, there’s no leak on your side of our boat. You could say the same about this lake.”

Governor Newsome bragged that California is a world leader in carbon reduction, electric car adoption, and aggressive electrical energy renewable portfolio standard goals. Newsome took on a strident tone when it came to comments about climate change.

“The Hots are getting hotter, the wets are getting wetter, the dries are getting drier, and Mother Nature with all due respect, she may have been absent a decade ago (in the debate about Lake Tahoe), but she’s very, very present today in the conversation. And for those that love baseball, you know well, Mother Nature bats last, and she bats 1000. All she is, is chemistry, biology and physics. It is a reality. And I don’t even … I’m not interested in debating it.”

Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord and does not acknowledge that human activity is causing the planet to rapidly warm. Trump’s primary reason for jumping ship on the Paris Climate Accord is that it would hurt the US economy. Governor Newsome debunked the notion that society’s choices are either to save the planet  or foster business. Newsome said California is an object lesson that through good public policy, society can grow the economy and protect the environment at the same time. Newsome said the two goals are not mutually exclusive.

“The senator just made an interesting point about California being the fifth largest economy in the world, a $3 trillion a year economy that just last week announced that we’ve had 113 consecutive months of net job growth, a record in this state. We’re enjoying record surpluses in the state, record low unemployment and growth in this state over the last five years, and we are significantly reducing carbon emissions at scale that no other state has done. I reject those that believe in the tyranny of ‘or.’ It’s one thing or the other. I embrace the genius of ‘and.’ That’s the principle that drives our values here in the state of California.”

Newsome praised Richard Nixon for his environmental foresight. Newsome added that in the context of a Donald Trump presidency, “he kind of missed Nixon.”

“Last Monday, at a press conference defending the bald eagle, we were talking about the Endangered Species Act under attack by an administration doesn’t believe in it. Hell, that was signed by Richard Nixon. I kind of miss Nixon,” Newsome said.

“The TRPA (Tahoe Regional Planning Agency), the EPA were signed by Nixon. Last week we filed, forgive me, Monday our 56th lawsuit against the administration because they’re trying to roll back the Clean Power Plan. But we began Monday with defending the bald eagle. And remarkably, I’m going to be a little off topic. On Friday, we had to defend the Statue of Liberty. I mean, these are interesting times that was on the public charge. These are remarkably interesting times a lot of headwind is my point. And that means your resolve, your clarity, not just the lake’s clarity, your clarity of conviction is more important than ever, that we stand up and we step into this moment and we assert ourselves at peril, at peril to have been judged not to have lived. We talk in generational terms, at the peril of being judged not to have lived. This is a remarkably important moment in our time. And each and every one of us are going to look back on our lives and reflect on the fact that we either contributed to life, our city, our state and our nation, and the world we’re trying to build. And so it’s in that spirit, I just want to, again, thank you for your faith to this cause and, and just close by reminding you that there’s no greater cause on keeping this lake clear. Because it’s really a proxy for all of our larger efforts.”


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