Tahoe Forum Draws Political Leaders, Funding Approval

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More funding to ease fire hazards and keep Lake Tahoe blue was approved Friday as key federal officials and members of Congress joined with former President Bill Clinton at a forum at the mountain lake on the California-Nevada line.

The $45 million announced by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne will be used for various environmental restoration projects. That includes work in areas around a Tahoe neighborhood ravaged by a wildfire in June. The Angora fire destroyed 254 homes and burned 3,100 acres.

The funds, generated from sales of public lands in the Las Vegas area, are part of a $1 billion program launched in 1997 with the backing of then-President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore and later solidified through the federal Lake Tahoe Restoration Act.

The $45 million includes $10 million for fire prevention and forest thinning efforts. The rest is earmarked for watershed, recreation and air quality improvements and scientific research.

The annual Tahoe forum often draws attention to threats facing Lake Tahoes environment, with wildfire topping the list in recent years.

Besides Clinton and Kempthorne, others at the event included Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and John Ensign, R-Nev., Reps. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and John Doolittle, R-Calif., and Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons.

Also attending was U.S. Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell, who toured the Angora fire zone and reviewed rehabilitation efforts in advance of the forum.

Trees around the lake have grown too crowded, thanks to a century of fire suppression following extensive logging of old-growth, fire-resistant trees. Recent droughts and increasing average temperatures also mean Tahoes forests are more susceptible to fire and disease.

An initial Forest Service review of the Angora fire found that it burned less intensely in areas where trees had been thinned and debris removed. Officials estimated that twice as many homes would have burned had it not been for that work.

But the fire funneled into a residential neighborhood when it reached a heavily forested stream area. Prevention work was not done in that area because of regional water quality regulations that would have increased the cost of the work.

"More people need to understand that they have a responsibility to treat the area around their own homes," Kimbell said. "This cant be all on the public agencies. We are all working together on this. If you are going to moderate fire behavior, you are going to have to look across a landscape."

As she walked through the charred area, Kimbell said a lot of things went right because of fire prevention work. In the area where the fire stayed low to the ground, bushes and wildflowers whose roots survived were already sprouting through the ash. In an adjacent stream area where the fire erupted into the tops of the trees, all vegetation was destroyed.

A bistate Nevada-California commission was created in July to review what regulations may need to be changed to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Fires pose a unique threat to Tahoe because they could increase soil erosion and impact the lakes famed clarity. UC Davis researchers announced this week that the lakes clarity declined 4½ feet last year to an average depth of 67.7 feet.

The all-time low was 64 feet in 1997. When measurements began in 1968, the lake was clear to an average depth of 102.4 feet.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)