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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Lake Tahoe Logging

Air Date: Week of

A coalition of small businesses is trying to block a federal plan to increase logging in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Traditionally, business people have sided with the timber industry, but today they worry that logging will drive the tourists away. Willie Albright reports.


CURWOOD: The long-standing debate over how best to manage national forest land in California's Sierra Nevada is beginning to shift. The National Forest Service is preparing a new management plan for the region, and many Sierra business people are speaking out against an industry they used to support whole-heartedly: logging. Now they favor tourism. Reporter Willie Albright explains why.


ALBRIGHT: From the casinos and ski resorts of Lake Tahoe to the white waters of the American River, tourism is replacing industries such as logging as the primary economic force here in the Sierra Nevada. The mountain town of Truckee is a case in point. Its lumber mill closed more than 10 years ago. Now, in its place there's the Unique Boutique, the Cafe Meridian, and the Sports Exchange.

(A cash register rings; a receipt prints and is ripped from the roll)

DILLON: Whether you're a housekeeper or you work at McDonald's or you work in our store here, it's all based on tourism.

ALBRIGHT: Paul Dillon owns the Sports Exchange.

DILLON: Almost everybody in this community is here because it's a nice place to live, and tourists recognize it. And that's why they're here, too. And if there weren't tourists here, it probably wouldn't be such a nice place to live.

ALBRIGHT: Tourism has become such an important part of the local economy that many small businesses are worried about the effect of resource extraction industries. They have formed a coalition to block Forest Service plans to increase logging on public land, arguing that logging will drive the tourists away. Erin Noel is an environmental attorney with the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, who is organizing business opposition to the plan.

NOEL: What's at stake is management of national forests in the Sierra Nevada, and whether or not we want to have sustainable logging occur around the things that we most want to protect. The streams, the rivers, and the wild areas we really care about as a culture, not just here locally but throughout California and the United States.

ALBRIGHT: Erin Noel got 52 businesses to sign a letter to the Forest Service. The letter argues that the plan fails to protect old growth forests, spotted owl habitat, or roadless areas. If these were logged, she says, the region will lose its appeal to tourists, and that will hurt the economy far more than lost logging jobs.

(Industrial noise)

ALBRIGHT: Logging is on the decline in the Sierra Nevada, accounting for only four percent of the economy as compared to 59 percent generated by the tourist industry. But logging proponents argue that lumber mills, such as this one north of Truckee, pay far better wages than resort jobs. Forester Mike Yost says the debate should not be about logging versus tourism. He says that logging on public lands is essential to control the threat of wildfires. And he says burning forests are very bad for tourism.

YOST: The trade-off is more than just are we going to damage the forest by logging or not logging. If we don't deal with this fuel problem one way or another in the forest, what's going to happen, the fire ecologists tell us, sooner or later we're going to have very intensive fires everywhere. Like some of the ones we had this summer.

ALBRIGHT: Fires which Mike Yost says cost the Forest Service $30 million to fight and kept tourists away in record numbers. Environmentalists say logging does little to control fires because only the larger, more profitable trees were taken. But Mike Yost says new technology makes it economically feasible to go after small trees. Falling between the two camps is the Sierra Business Council, the largest business organization in the area. Council director Lucy Blake says both viewpoints need to be incorporated into a long-range vision for the Sierra Nevada.

BLAKE: We've got to move away from either-or. It's not environment versus economy. It's environment and economy. And it's only by investing for both economic health and environmental health that we're going to produce truly prosperous communities in the Sierra Nevada.

ALBRIGHT: About 60 million tourists visit the Sierra Nevada each year. Lucy Blake says tourism is creating its own environmental problems -- traffic congestion and air pollution to name a few. In addition, more people are living in the Sierra Nevada than ever before. The population here doubled to 650,000 in the past 20 years. That number is expected to triple by 2040, and some environmentalists say this rapid population growth is the biggest threat of all. For Living on Earth, I'm Willie Albright at Lake Tahoe.



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