SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - Even though a controversial plan to stop the construction of roads in 50 million acres of forests nationwide could affect nearly a fifth of the national forest land inside the Lake Tahoe Basin, the actual impact likely will be minimal.
The reason is simple: In almost all of the nearly 45,000 acres that could be affected at Tahoe, new road construction already is prohibited.
"Is the roadless initiative going to make a major shakeup at Lake Tahoe? Heck no," said Lisa O'Daly, community planner for the Forest Service's Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
"The roadless initiative for the entire nation concerns new roads in roadless areas and roadless area management," O'Daly added. "It's not about restricting access. The information we have today is that access decisions are made at the local level. At Tahoe, that means our 1988 Forest Plan direction."
And that means the areas, which include the tallest peak in the basin and the headwaters of the lake's largest tributary, are already mostly managed as roadless.
Calling national forests "places of renewal of the human spirit," President Clinton in October 1999 announced steps to prevent road construction in certain portions of national forests without roads. The roads in question aren't four-lane highways but rather dirt or sometimes paved roads running through the trees. Often four-wheel drive is needed to navigate them.
Now federal officials are working on a draft Environmental Impact Statement which will outline in more detail what will happen nationwide. Due out in May, the release of the draft will be followed by a public-comment period before a final decision is made.
The Tahoe areas being considered for the nationwide initiative are:
This 15,000 acres of land on the southern end of the basin is named for Freel Peak, at 10,881, the tallest mountain in the Tahoe Basin.
Star Lake, the highest lake in the basin, is in the area, too.
Only 800 acres of the land are within a quarter of a mile of a road. The high elevations of the land have a distinct visual quality, according to the Forest Service, which include high, barren peaks, wind-deformed trees and panoramic views of Nevada and Tahoe.
This 14,500 acres is at the southernmost tip of the basin and for backcountry recreation rivals Desolation Wilderness in popularity. It contains the grazing allotment known as Meiss Meadows, which includes a120-year-old historic ranch cabin; the headwaters of the Upper Truckee River, Tahoe's largest tributary and home of the basin's only self-supporting population of Lahontan cutthroat trout; and several hiking trails.
Named for Lincoln Creek, this 6,600 acres is on East Shore.
Compared to the previous two places, the area is more ordinary in appearance. However, it provides spectacular views of Tahoe and Carson Valley, according to the Forest Service.
-- Mount Rose.
This area, about 2,500 acres, borders the basin portion of Mount Rose Wilderness, most of which is in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. It is a smaller piece of land that was left out when the larger, more than 15,000-acre area was given wilderness status.
It contains an unnamed 10,336-foot peak that is second in height only to Freel when compared to other basin mountains. Mount Rose itself is outside of the Tahoe Basin.
This 7,900 acres is a long, narrow band that borders Desolation Wilderness in the Tahoe Basin's southwest area. It's a section of land that was left out when Desolation was given wilderness status.
-- Granite Chief.
A portion of this 1,700-acre chunk of land is the only one where Clinton's road proposal may have an impact. Part of the area, also left out when Granite Chief Wilderness was designated by Congress, could be the site for potential expansion of Alpine Meadows.
The ski resort, however, has no current plans for expansions, and O'Daly said she didn't know if the roadless initiative would affect that potential.
n Public reaction.
Five hundred thousand comments from people all over the country are being used to prepare draft environmental report. The number that came from Tahoe is unknown.
While the effect at Tahoe will be minimal, Dave Roberts of the League to Save Lake Tahoe said the proposal will be good overall for the Sierra Nevada.
"In the Tahoe Basin, it's not really going to affect things much," said Roberts, assistant executive director of the League. "The chances of building a road in the Tahoe Basin, even outside of a roadless area, are slim to none with the regulations here.
"But in a broader context, when you look at the amount of resources that are extracted from the Sierra Nevada, by far the largest resource extracted is water," he added. "The best way to protect clean water is to maintain the integrity of a watershed. These roadless areas contribute more to preserving the water than anywhere else in the national forest system."
Others, however, disagree. And many disagree with the way the government is going about creating the roadless policy. Labeling land a wilderness area requires an act of Congress. And some people believe the president is trying to circumvent Congress with the proposal, giving up to 50 million acres of land the highest level of protection he can without getting approval from the House and Senate.
"My reaction, and I've heard others say this, is Clinton is trying to be another Theodore Roosevelt," said Dick Young, a member of the Lake Tahoe Hi Lo's 4-Wheel Drive Club. "But Theodore Roosevelt said, 'We need to make improvements on our land as we use our land.' Clinton's saying, 'We should just close our lands.'"