Feinstein Calls for Wildfire Protection Plan for Tahoe

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein is pressing fire officials to come up with a wildfire protection plan for Lake Tahoe by August.

At a fire prevention forum, Feinstein, D-Calif., said the threat of a major blaze threatens to undo recent environmental gains made at the scenic Sierra Nevada lake straddling the California-Nevada border.

"I am here today to call upon the Tahoe community to once again unite - this time to help save the lake and surrounding basin from a conflagration which could turn the forests to ash, which could send sediment tumbling into the lake, which could destroy homes and businesses," she told Saturday's gathering.

Feinstein, a forum organizer, was a prime sponsor of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act signed into law by President Bush last year. The legislation speeds fuels reduction projects and reduces some requirements for environmental reviews.

The forum drew about 175 fire officials, foresters and community leaders to Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake Tahoe.

The gathering's purpose was to ensure that a community fire prevention plan is ready to go before the Lake Tahoe Environmental Summit in August. The plan then will go to California and Nevada forestry departments for action before being sent to the U.S. Forest Service.

Fire officials hope Lake Tahoe can be among the first places in the nation in line to get a portion of the $760 million authorized by the federal act.

"You've given us a big job today," said Brian Schafer, chairman of the Lake Tahoe Regional Fire Chiefs' Association. "I pledge that we will do everything we can to have the plans done in time."

Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Tahoe City, another forum organizer, said the protection plan is a key step in preventing catastrophic wildfires such as those that occurred in Southern California last year.

"This is the first time there has been an effort to truly bring everybody together at one time to set a goal and launch off to achieve it," Leslie said.

"With Dianne Feinstein looking you in the eye saying she wants it done by August, there's no way out. They've put themselves in a must-produce situation," Leslie added.

Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman said some Lake Tahoe forests are at eight times their normal density levels and about 40 percent of the Tahoe Basin is at risk of fire.

Without logging and prescribed burning, Norman said, "nature would take care of the over-density problem with consequences that would be totally unacceptable."

Some environmental groups have questioned whether companies will be allowed to cut large, old-growth trees in the name of fire prevention.

But League to Save Lake Tahoe officials think there's some truth to the act's premise that short-term disruptions to the environment are necessary to prevent catastrophic fires.

League spokesman Dan Sussman said he thinks Tahoe will get enough funding to implement thinning projects without adverse environmental impacts.

Feinstein also announced she would introduce legislation this month to provide a tax credit for the biomass industry, which works to convert less valuable forest products into energy.

Regional Forest Service chief Jack Blackwell said the legislation is needed because the industry is facing tough times.

"There were about 60 plants ... today we have 29," Blackwell told the Tahoe Daily Tribune. "Some are hanging on by their fingernails. The forest is choked with overly dense vegetation and that biomass can help us with needs for energy."