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FORESTS: Lake Tahoe fire could have been prevented -- Sen. Craig  
Dan Berman, Greenwire senior reporter 6/26/07

Public opposition to mechanical thinning of forests at risk for wildfires contributed to the Lake Tahoe fire that has scorched 2,500 acres, proponents of the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative said today.

Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) expressed anger at the reaction of Lake Tahoe residents to the Angora Fire, which has burned nearly 250 structures. "They have lost their homes and now are blaming environmentalists," Craig said at a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing.

Craig recalled that he, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey -- then a Senate aide -- attempted in the late 1990s to boost thinning efforts in the Tahoe watershed but were rebuffed by local and national interest groups. "We tried and weren't allowed to, and they lost their homes," Craig said. "I don't know if I want to smile, or I want to cry."

The Tahoe basin generally has a lower fire frequency than other areas in the West, so there was more resistance there when the Forest Service wanted to go in with chainsaws and conduct mechanical treatment, Rey said. Eventually, it cost $10,000 per acre due to the non-invasive methods used.

"Some days in the Tahoe Basin I thought we were going to name and hug every tree before we cut it," Rey said.

Today's comments came at a hearing on efforts by the Forest Service and Interior Department to reduce the skyrocketing costs of fighting wildfires. Last year, the federal government spent $2 billion fighting blazes on about 10 million acres of land.

But Craig said the simplest option -- treating hazardous fuels beforehand to limit the risk of wildfires -- is not being implemented due to opposition from environmentalists and the public in certain areas. "We're going to have to do a lot more burning before smoke gets in somebody's eyes to improve up their vision."

South Lake Tahoe Mayor Kathay Lovell apparently has smoke in her eyes, calling for a boost in projects to remove brush and dead trees from nearby forests. "We need to do more," Lovell told the New York Times. "This has been a wakeup call."

Cost-containment problems

Federal land managers are making progress in efforts to reduce costs of fighting wildfires, but the Government Accountability Office says they still have a long way to go.

Agencies have identified weaknesses in management of cost-containment efforts, "but they have neither clearly defined their cost-containment goals and objectives nor developed a strategy for achieving them," the GAO report states.

"Officials in the field lack a clear understanding of the relative importance the agencies' leadership places on containing costs, and therefore are likely to select firefighting strategies without due consideration of the costs of suppression," the report adds.

Rey noted agencies now treat 4 million acres of forest annually, up from 1 million acres per year at the beginning of the decade. At the same time, population growth in the wildland-urban interface, insect infestations and setbacks in the courts are hampering progress.

"We're on the right path but the rate of progress is less than ideal," Rey said, calling the current effort "two steps forward and one step back."

Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is also frustrated with the lack of progress. "It seems like every year we ask the same questions," Domenici said, suggesting that senators should view wildfires as a climate change issue, given the high levels of carbon dioxide released during firestorms.

"This Congress should be very concerned about the carbon dioxide released by our dead and dying trees, especially when they burn," Domenici said. Aside from a nuclear bomb, "there is no other event that pushes carbon dioxide as high into the atmosphere as this does."

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