Trees in Transition

"The Comstock Lode was the tomb of the forests of Tahoe."

With this terse pronouncement in the 1890s, the Territorial Enterprise, a Virginia City newspaper, summarized the reason for the destruction of Lake Tahoe's healthy forests.  Land-stripping was the standard practice of the 1860s to 1880s, as new settlers helped themselves to the seemingly limitless stands of pine trees here.  The mature sugar, Jeffrey, and yellow pine trees were exactly what miners required in Virginia City to sustain their pursuit of rich silver veins.

The eruption of the Civil War merely intensified these economic motives as Nevada's silver became a major source of financing for the Union army.  With a war to be won and fortunes to be sought, environmental preservation and forest management were far from the minds of the loggers who swarmed throughout the Basin from 1859 to 1900.

During this period, hundreds of thousands of huge, old trees were cut down, hauled to the lake, and floated to lumber mills at Glenbrook and Incline Village. Planks and mining timbers were then hauled by railroads and trams to the eastern summits, and floated down V-shaped water flumes to the Virginia and Truckee Railroad yards in Carson City.  By 1881 more than two billion board-feet of lumber had been removed from the Lake Tahoe area.

Because loggers had left behind all but the largest fir trees, fir provided the seed source for Tahoe's next forest.  Pine seedlings, which were better adapted for the drought conditions which Tahoe periodically experienced, had a hard time competing with the more numerous firs.  Abundant new fir trees, regenerating at the same time as the few remaining pines, produced a forest with several undesirable characteristics:  an unhealthy balance of fir over pine trees, trees of approximately the same age (therefore, they die at approximately the same time), and stands of trees with greater density than the land can support.

The result today is an overly-dense, fir dominated forest which is vulnerable to the effects of drought.  Nutrients in the soil and available moisture will only support one healthy tree for every three which now grow.  The inevitable result of this "overstocking" is tree disease, insect infestation, and tree death.

The land management agencies in the Lake Tahoe Basin are currently working on a variety of projects to improve both the short-term and long-term conditions of the forest.  But the transition from a dying forest to a healthy ecosystem will not happen overnight.  The process will require vision and commitment from all who are concerned about the Lake Tahoe Basin.

You can translate your vision and commitment to Lake Tahoe's future into several channels:  become informed about forest management activities and practices; talk to your friends and neighbors; communicate your concerns to your elected representatives; volunteer to help out on a special project which interests you (In these days of austere budgets, all agencies welcome volunteer help!).  You can, and should practice good defensible space habits on your property.  Finally, you can adopt a recreation ethic which is easy on the land; leave no trace that you have been in the forest. If you "pack it in," be sure to "pack it out." 

Ultimately, the fate of Lake Tahoe and her forests is in your hands. What legacy do you want to leave for your grandchildren?  Will they know about Lake Tahoe's forests by reading history books?  Or will they experience the beauties of this alpine treasure through direct encounters with plant and animal species which were here long before European Americans made their appearance?  There is still time to make a choice.


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