It is not a sin to cut a green tree

Erica Olsen

The health of the forests in the Lake Tahoe Basin is of paramount importance to not only local residents, but President Clinton. It is one of three major topics to be discussed at the Tahoe Forum on July 26 and 27. The natural beauty of Tahoe is the area’s greatest asset and revenue producer—it attracts tourists on which local economy depends.

The forest is an integral part of the basin’s beauty and ecosystem. One only has to look around the basin to recognize the forest is unhealthy. It is plagued with disease, beetle infestation and overstocked forest stands. Nature has not been allowed to take care of itself and the result is declining forest health. Past forest management policy suppressed fire and did not allow selective logging. This policy is obviously not working and it is time to try something else. Following are some policies that can help the Lake Tahoe forest, and perhaps save dollars.

Salvage Dead and Dying Trees

The 200,000 acres of forest surrounding Lake Tahoe are ridden with beetle infestation, which so far have killed 30 percent of the trees. The Jeffery pine beetle infestation declined from 330 dead trees in 1983 to four trees in 1987 from removing infested trees, according to the California Forestry Association. This and other examples show that by removing dying trees the forest can be saved from destructive insects.

Removing dying trees can also eliminate some concerns with prescribed fires. Prescribed fires are considered to be the primary tool for restoring dying forests. (A complete turnaround from recent policy.) But before jumping headlong into a massive effort to begin controlled burns, dead and dying trees should be removed first. Dead trees cause high fuel loading which make a fire burn hotter and faster. With a lower fuel load the fire will burn slower and give off less smoke, lessening major air quality concerns. Air quality has been the foremost reason why prescribed burns were suppressed in the past. Also by reducing the high fuel load the escalating risk of a catastrophic fire decreases.

Prescribed Fires

Prior to Western settlement, 5.6 to 13.2 million acres of forest burned each year nationwide. The loss of resources, combined with the impracticality of forest fires in settled areas, prompted the U.S. Forest Service to implement a policy to suppress all fires. Although resources were saved, forests’ health declined. A 1994 report on the health of America’s forests shows a 24 percent increase in tree mortality between 1986 and 1991. The mortality is caused by excessive regeneration leading to overstocking. Forest density closes the forest to sunlight which subsequently changes the tree composition from shade intolerant species to a shade tolerant species, decreasing the forests’ diversity.

By allowing prescribed fires, the forest is allowed to maintain itself as it did before Western settlement. Fire expedites the recycling of soil nutrients needed to maintain site productivity, reduces competition from bush species and expedites the removal of lower branches necessary for the reduction in risk of catastrophic wildfire.

Forest Thinning

Thinning the forest of non-native trees will restore forest health and vigor, according to the California Forestry Association. Aggressive early-age thinning of young trees combined with treatment of stumps to reduce disease has been effective in minimizing root rot disease. In a Lassen National Forest study, thinning insect-infested forests has eliminated tree mortality for the past 17 years.

Economic Solution: Biomass Harvest

Biomass, in this case, includes all living and dead vegetation. Designed by Registered Professional Foresters, a biomass harvest leaves the best trees and removes the excess vegetation. After the biomass is removed, the remaining trees will continue to grow and mature, but at a faster rate than before since there is less competition for sunlight, water and nutrients. The extra sun and water will stimulate new growth on the forest floor, providing food and shelter for wildlife. In some cases, a prescribed burn or another biomass harvest may be needed in 10 to 20 years to maintain a forest’s health.

Areas suitable for this type of harvest are densely stocked forests that yield sufficient biomass per acre to make harvesting and hauling economically feasible. The harvest incorporates both the thinning and salvage forest policies resulting in an industry that can lessen the cost of forest management.

The biomass is converted into a usable energy source, thereby creating an economic incentive for removing dying trees and thinning overstocked stands. There are over 40 biomass industrial plants operating in California. The industry displaces more than $200 million of imported energy annually by using a totally renewable resource.

"Timing is important," said David Bischel, president of CFA. "As a forest shows signs of poor vigor, it has to be treated quickly to maximize economic return." Biomass harvesting may not always produce revenue, but it can reduce costs up to $10,000 an acre. "I think the situation out there [Lake Tahoe forests] with all the forest stands you can reduce costs," Bischel said.


Forest stewardship is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Forests should not be clearcut entirely, but nor should hands-off, pristine wilderness policies be pursued. And even Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, extreme environmentalist, said in a June 30 meeting at Lake Tahoe, "It is not a sin to cut a green tree."

Erica Olsen is a research analyst at NPRI.