Records Show Infighting Hurt Tahoe Fire Prevention

By: Don Thompson AP
By: Don Thompson AP

SACRAMENTO (AP) - 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
thousands of pages of documents reviewed by The Associated Press.

The failure of the agencies to adequately protect the basin was brought to light last June when the Angora Fire 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 is recommending ways to heal
the rifts and will vote on its report Friday.

The AP's review showed just how glaring the problems have been over the years.

Using state and federal 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 picture-postcard lake the straddles the California-Nevada border.

Most of the documents covered the three years before the Angora wildfire and reveal a tangle of agencies with competing agendas. Efforts to clear trees and brush were delayed - often for years - as agencies battled over methods and jurisdictional disputes.

The documents also showed the level of concern by homeowners and
local fire officials, as the forests ringing the lake had become overgrown in recent decades.

As the Angora Fire was churning through houses and timber in June 2007, homeowners on the opposite shore sent a letter to a regional planning agency pleading for a fire road to be cut near their neighborhood.

"A catastrophic fire (is) waiting to happen," said the letter from homeowners in the lakeside enclave of Glenbrook. "Time is absolutely of the essence."

Shortly after, Tahoe-area agencies granted approval to build the four-mile-long fire 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 California
state forester and a local fire chief demonstrated the frustration felt by those who sought increased thinning of Tahoe's forests.

In an e-mail exchange from October 2004, Christy Daugherty, a forester 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 an additional layer 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 telephone 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 thousands of agency documents obtained by the AP provides an example of just the type of infighting the two-state commission that meets 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 previously had been banned to prevent
runoff from fouling the lake's water.

Soon after, the Forest Service submitted a plan to experiment with a six-wheeled logging machine that was designed to selectively cut trees while limiting damage to the environment.

The Forest Service's plan hit 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," complained Forest Service project coordinator Dave Marlow in a March 2006 e-mail. "I think we are miles apart on this."

A back-and-forth followed that 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," wrote Scott Parsons, a Forest Service vegetation specialist, in a June 2006 e-mail.

Singer, the Lahontan water board director, e-mailed a reply threatening to file formal objections to what he described as "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 last fall, several months after the Angora Fire, that the machine was allowed to be used along South Lake Tahoe's Heavenly Creek, just east of the burned area.
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Associated Press Writers Aaron C. Davis and Tom Verdin in
Sacramento contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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