At the Lake: Environmental groups challenge Forest Service over tree cutting
The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t followed its own guidelines while removing potentially hazardous trees from the Angora fire burn area, Lake Tahoe Basin environmental groups say.
The Tahoe Area Sierra Club and Sierra Forest Legacy, a Sacramento-based organization with representatives on the South Shore, have criticized Forest Service cuts completed since summer, including one encompassing several large trees near the intersection of Tahoe Mountain Road and Forest Mountain Drive.
The trees, one a Jeffrey pine estimated by the groups to be 79 inches in diameter and approximately 350 years old, were cut down during a hazardous-tree removal project on the Forest Service’s burn-area urban lots.
Fire damage to the trees was not extensive enough to warrant toppling, the groups contend.
“We were convinced these trees would be left standing, based on what the Forest Service told us,” said Carla Ennis, co-chair of the Tahoe Area Sierra Club. “I don’t know why those trees were cut down.”
The urban-lot hazardous-tree removal project removed trees in the burn area that were likely to die and pose a threat to human health or property if they fell, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Cheva Heck.
According to Forest Service officials, the agency used the percentage of living foliage remaining in a tree’s top to help indicate which fire-damaged trees to cut.
Depending on the tree species, percentages ranged from zero to 80 percent and helped determine a fire-damaged tree’s likelihood to survive, according to Forest Service project guidelines.
“We went by accepted fire-salvage standards,” Heck said. “We used a very conservative approach.”
Guidelines for the urban-lot project also stated trees would be removed if they showed broken or hanging branches, dead tops, exposed or damaged roots, evidence of decay, or evidence of insect infestation or disease in combination with fire damage.
Such structural deficiencies helped determine why the large trees near Tahoe Mountain Road were deemed hazardous, Heck said.
“The reason why they were removed, even though they had green needles, is because they were a threat to a road,” Heck said.
Several Forest Service crews marked trees to be cut, but specific defects that caused the large trees near Tahoe Mountain Drive to be deemed hazardous are unavailable.
“We do not know what the specific structural defect was,” Heck said. “Any number of people could have marked it. To some degree, it was a judgment call, but the guidelines are very clear.”
The environmental groups asked local resident and registered professional forester Jon Hoefer to examine the trees’ stumps to determine their previous health.
Hoefer found the large trees had moist cambium layers – a state not indicative of trees fatally scorched by fire. Cambium layers are the areas just beneath a tree’s bark where nutrients move to and from the foliage.
Although Hoefer found signs the trees may have survived if left standing, he said determining the overall health of a tree after it has been removed is challenging at best.
“I think there’s a lot of uncertainty about what was there and what the condition of those trees was,” Hoefer said. “Surmising things from a stump is pretty difficult.”
Environmental groups raised the concern about the trees ahead of a public comment period deadline for the next phase of Forest Service tree removal. The comment period on the removal of burn-area hazardous trees surrounding Forest Service trails and unpaved roads closes Nov. 26.
“People are just using the fire to cut just about anything down,” Ennis said. “It almost seems like a lot of things are being done wrong, because the gloves are off.”
Crews completed burn-area hazardous-tree removal on Forest Service urban lots in early November.
Because fire-damaged trees near trails and unpaved roads typically pose less of a threat to health and property than those near urban lots, the next phase of burn-area hazardous-tree removal will allow the Forest Service to be even more conservative, Heck said.