Steps to prevent catastrophic wildfires in the Lake Tahoe basin, one of the country’s most treasured natural wonders, have been hampered for years by bureaucratic infighting among agencies that often work at cross-purposes, according to documents reviewed by The Associated Press.
The failure of the agencies to adequately protect the basin was brought to light in June when a wildfire ripped through a thickly forested ravine and destroyed 254 homes near South Lake Tahoe.
Since then, blame has fallen on the overlapping agencies that have environmental and regulatory oversight of the Tahoe basin. A commission established after the fire was scheduled to vote Friday on a report recommending ways to heal the rifts.
The AP’s review showed just how glaring the problems have been over the years.
Using Freedom of Information laws, the AP obtained more than 4,000 pages of documents from local, regional, state and federal agencies involved in planning, environmental protection and fire prevention around Tahoe, the picturesque lake straddling the California-Nevada line.
Most of the documents covered the three years before the wildfire and reveal a tangle of agencies with competing agendas. Efforts to clear trees and brush were delayed — often for years — as agencies bickered over methods and jurisdictional disputes.
The documents also show that while the wildfire heightened the urgency to thin the forest, years of delay have left the basin ripe for a repeat calamity.
In a June letter, homeowners in the basin’s Glenbrook neighborhood pleaded to a regional planning agency for a fire road to be cut near their homes, saying: “a catastrophic fire (is) waiting to happen. ... Time is absolutely of the essence.”
The plea came as the fire churned through homes and timber on the opposite shore. Tahoe-area agencies finally granted approval to build the four-mile road, a project that had been delayed for six years because of disagreements over whether it was necessary.
Elsewhere in the documents, correspondence between a state forester and a local fire chief demonstrate frustration among those who sought increased thinning of Tahoe’s forests.
‘We’ve all got to be “PC”’
In an e-mail exchange from October 2004, Christy Daugherty, who coordinated fire prevention projects with the California Tahoe Conservancy, lamented that the conservancy was being criticized for not thinning trees after years of being blamed for allowing too much logging.
She said the U.S. Forest Service had proposed logging in a particular area “but were held back by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and others.”
“My guess is, if they had tried to treat heavy enough in the beginning, they would have got slammed by the public and agency people that don’t understand forestry,” Daugherty wrote to John Pang, chief of the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District.
“As much as it has frustrated me to feel like my advice has been ignored, I understand the need for the (conservancy) to be politically and socially acceptable,” Daugherty wrote.
Pang replied: “I understand the need to avoid social pressures from stopping the projects. ... Yes, we’ve all got to be ‘PC.”’
Pang went on to say that fire consultants felt they were being stonewalled by agencies such as the conservancy and the water board, which often did not favor cutting trees.
Trying to decipher how Lake Tahoe’s environment is managed and which agencies are in charge is a confounding exercise.
To start, its shores are divided between two states, immediately creating two layers of bureaucracy.
Beyond the various state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service administers much of the land around the lake. Then there are regional water boards that are charged with maintaining the lake’s clarity, multiple local governments and fire protection districts, and a two-state regional planning board whose regulations affect all the agencies, organizations and private landowners in the Tahoe basin.
Given the number of voices and their often competing interests, the interagency feuding that has contributed to the basin’s tinderbox condition is not surprising, said Harold Singer, director of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.
“Part of this is personalities, and part of this is we’re a regulatory agency and they are implementing agencies,” Singer said in a phone interview, adding that last year’s wildfire has forced the agencies to work more cooperatively. “I think we’ve moved past that. I think the dynamics of working with other agencies has changed considerably.”
His agency was criticized repeatedly throughout the documents for obstructing efforts to thin the forest.
In 2005, for example, the Lahontan water board’s intervention on a thinning project so angered the California Department of Forestry regional coordinator that she told a colleague to ignore the board’s request to monitor potential harm to wildlife.
One incident contained in the documents provides an example of the type of infighting the two-state commission meeting Friday hopes to end.
In 2004, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, which issues the umbrella regulations, changed its rules to allow more tree thinning along streams. That tactic had been banned to prevent runoff from fouling the lake.
Soon after, the Forest Service submitted a plan to experiment with a six-wheeled logging machine designed to selectively cut trees while limiting damage to the environment.
Defeating the purpose?
The Forest Service’s plan was met with immediate resistance from the regional planning agency and the Lahontan water board. They urged the Forest Service to try alternatives such as thinning by hand crews, which is more expensive, labor-intensive and time-consuming.
“This defeats the purpose,” Forest Service project coordinator Dave Marlow complained in a March 2006 e-mail. “I think we are miles apart on this.”
The discussion that followed showed the level of dysfunction and distrust between agencies.
“This is our project, not Lahontan’s, and I feel like they are pushing this down our throats,” Scott Parsons, a Forest Service vegetation specialist, wrote in a June 2006 e-mail.
Singer, the Lahontan water board director, replied by threatening to file formal objections to what he called a “biased-looking study with a predetermined outcome,” as the Forest Service attempted to show the machinery could be used along streams.
The agency was concerned the machine was too heavy and would compact the soil.
The water board’s objections also angered 21 Tahoe-area fire officials, who gathered in January 2007 and considered using their political clout to pressure the water agency.
The fire chiefs said water quality officials were “inserting themselves into an area they do not belong,” according to minutes of their meeting. “The demonstration project has been tied up for two years.”
It wasn’t until the fall, several months after the wildfire, that the machine was allowed to be used along South Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Creek, just east of the burned area.