Foresters will now be able to use machines to help clear hazardous brush on slopes of 30-50 percent after policy changes approved by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board on Wednesday.
“This is a game changer for fuels reduction in the basin,” said Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Chief Scott Lindgren. “Hilly terrain is a significant portion of the Tahoe Basin and with the right kind of equipment, we can do quality fuel reduction work and protect the environment at the same time.”
Prior to the update, Lake Tahoe agencies could use ground-based mechanical equipment on slopes up to a 30 percent gradient, while work on steeper slopes was limited to hand crews, pile burning, and aerial logging to protect water quality from potential erosion.
“The Caldor Fire and the surge of megafires in the region are clear directives for us to improve our forest health policies to better protect communities and environment from wildfire,” TRPA Executive Director Joanne S. Marchetta said. “TRPA is committed to advancing science-based practices that protect the lake and bolster our resilience to ever-growing wildfire threats, especially given the need for fuels reduction work in untreated areas narrowly missed by the Caldor Fire.”
Steep terrain can be more difficult and resource intensive for land managers to reduce hazardous forest fuels.
Research recently completed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station and the University of Idaho, showed that the use of newer mechanical equipment in combination with hand crews on slopes of 30-50 percent would not cause significant impacts to the watershed.
The research also showed the new policy would increase forest and ecosystem resilience to disturbances such as fire, insects and disease, and climate change.
The policy change will facilitate additional forest health projects on steeper slopes. Approximately 61,000 acres in the Tahoe Basin have 30-50 percent slopes, and nearly half of that area is in wildland urban interface defense and threat zones near communities where hand crews continue to work.
Additionally, post-fire assessments of the Caldor Fire show that steeper slopes tended to burn at higher severity than other areas.
Although Lake Tahoe communities were largely spared from the destruction of last year’s Caldor Fire, nearly 250 Tahoe homes were lost to the wind-whipped Angora Fire in 2007. Following Angora, TRPA helped form the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team, which has led to greater coordination, streamlined policies, increased fuels management, and a greater focus on homeowner defensible space, according to the agency. Since then, TFFT partners have treated more than 68,000 acres for fuels reduction and have conducted 55,000 homeowner defensible space inspections.
“The Forest Service and our partners have made great strides toward increasing the pace and scale of forest health treatments in Lake Tahoe forests, but there is much more work to be done,” said Forest Supervisor Erick Walker. “By exploring new ideas and expanding treatment methods in challenging areas, we can provide land managers with more effective tools to help restore forests and increase landscape resilience. TRPA’s amendment allows the Forest Service to consider the use of equipment on steeper slopes when and where appropriate, to treat and remove forest fuels where the only option had been to hand thin, pile, and burn.”
Walker said that mechanical thinning can be a much more efficient and effective option when used in suitable locations, especially when hand crew capacity is a limiting factor.
“This change will help increase the pace and scale of forest restoration to meet the goals of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s Multi-Jurisdictional Fuels Strategy and would contribute to Forest Service efforts to advance forest health in collaboration with partners nationwide through our newly launched 10-year strategy, Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A Strategy for Protecting Communities and Improving Resilience in America’s Forests.”