Cost of not protecting Tahoe would be high

T]he price tag for thinning forests around Lake Tahoe to reduce fire danger is an eye-popping $200 million. And when all the environmental work outlined during the weekend Tahoe Summit is added up over the next decade, the bill likely is going to reach $1 billion.

It's a huge investment by taxpayers in the jewel of the Sierra Nevada, but worth every cent.

Here's why:

n Public safety. A wildfire at Lake Tahoe could get out of control in a heartbeat. With some 55,000 acres needing more work to reduce the brush and dead trees that would fuel such a fire, once started there could be no force of man to control it.

The basin is relatively difficult to get into and out of, greatly increasing the problems in fighting a fire and in evacuating thousands of people in a catastrophe. While we have faith in the fire districts working around the lake, it's a possibility none of them wants to face.

Forest thinning and firefighting preparedness cost a lot of money, but the only alternative is to wait for the worst.

n Economic disaster. The lure of Lake Tahoe drives the tourist economy of Northern Nevada like nothing else. What would happen if the scenery is scorched?

An example might be the massive Yellowstone fires of 1988. A National Park Service report notes a 400,000-person decline (15 percent) in the number of visitors for that year, at a time when tourism at national parks and in Wyoming generally was climbing rapidly.

That translated into about a $60 million direct hit on the local economy in one year. Another report notes that retail sales fell by 9 percent in two counties adjacent to Yellowstone. A long-term investment of $1 billion starts to make sense economically.

n The environment. Long before there were tourists or casinos, there was a beautiful lake revered by the Washoe people. It is less beautiful today - and the clarity has decreased by some 23 feet - because people enjoy it so much.

If people are to continue to be awed by Tahoe's natural magnificence, money must be spent to mitigate their presence - erosion, sewage, vehicle exhaust. Realize it's going to cost a pretty penny.


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