Stubbing Their Tahoe Again

The Burn It Down contingent at Lake Tahoe are up to their old tricks again. Some authoritarian thugs never learn. The latest eco-nazi eruption at the Sierran lake was featured in the Sac Bee last week [here]:

Lake Tahoe resident could face prison over tree removal

By Todd Milbourn - Sack-a-tomatoes Bee, April 9, 2008

Environmental cops at Lake Tahoe say Patricia Vincent deserves a prison sentence and a huge fine.

Her alleged crime: chopping down three trees on federal land that improved her backyard view of the lake.

The enviro cops in question are functionaries of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, recently lambasted by the emergency California-Nevada Tahoe Basin Fire Commission [here] for creating the fire hazard that led to the Angora Fire (which incinerated 3,100 acres of public forest and 254 private homes, and caused an estimated $140 million in damages) last June.

Vincent says it was an honest mistake, but now she’s believed to be the first target of criminal charges of illegally cutting Tahoe trees.

It’s the clearest signal yet of how serious coniferous crime has become as regulators fight to preserve the Sierra Nevada jewel Mark Twain once deemed “the finest view the world affords.”

Before I analyze this incident further, I must comment on the knee-jerk over use of Mark Twain, as in “yada this, yada that, … Mark Twain” that appears every time Lake Tahoe is discussed. Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, wrote about Lake Tahoe in Roughing It, his earliest collection of short stories about the West during the Gold Rush days. In Chapter XXIII entitled “Happy Indolence” Mark Twain describes how his unsafe campfire exploded into a raging forest inferno:

While Johnny was carrying the main bulk of the provisions up to our “house” for future use, I took the loaf of bread, some slices of bacon, and the coffee pot ashore, set them down by a tree, lit a fire, and went back to the boat to get a frying pan. While I was at this, I heard a shout from Johnny, and looking up I saw that my fire was galloping all over the premises.

Johnny was on the other side of it. He had to run through the flames to get to the lakeshore, and then we stood helpless and watched the devastation.

The ground was deeply carpeted with pine needles, and the fire touched them off as if they were gunpowder. It was wonderful to see with what fierce speed the tall sheet of flame traveled! My coffeepot was gone, and everything with it. In a minute and a half the fire seized upon a dense growth of dry manzanita chaparral six or eight feet high, and then the roaring and popping and crackling was something terrific. We were driven to the boat by the intense heat, and there we remained, spellbound.

Within half an hour all before us was a tossing, blinding tempest of flame! It went surging up adjacent ridges-surmounted them and disappeared in the canyons beyond-burst into view upon higher and farther ridges, presently-shed a grander illumination abroad, and dove again-flamed out again, directly, higher and higher up the mountainside-threw out skirmishing parties of fire here and there, and sent them trailing their crimson spirals away among remote ramparts and ribs and gorges, till as far as the eye could reach the lofty mountain fronts were webbed as it were with a tangled network of red lava streams. Away across the water the crags and domes were lit with a ruddy glare, and the firmament above was a reflected hell!

Mark Twain, in his greenhorn ignorance and disregard for fire safety, burned the place down! This is an important observation because it will be revealed that similar greenhorn ignorance still abounds at Lake Tahoe, yielding similar results! More from the Sac Bee article:

Since 2002 the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has fined violators a combined $1 million for such violations. “People up here have an emotional, gut reaction to the cutting of trees. It offends people,” TRPA spokesman Dennis Oliver said on a recent afternoon, driving his Toyota Prius through a neighborhood of illegally pruned pines. …

Most often, the task of regulating tree cutting and removal falls to TRPA, the often-controversial government agency founded 40 years ago to maintain Tahoe’s environment.

Agency records show fines against 41 homeowners and businesses for a combined $1 million from 2002 to 2007. Over the previous five years, the agency levied just 11 fines totalling $197,000.

TRPA officials said some trees can be cut as a fire precaution, so long as residents get permission. The agency has become more lenient on cutting around homes since the Angora fire roared through the region last year.

TRPA was taken to the woodshed and got it’s clock cleaned by the Governors’ emergency Commission for unduly restricting hazardous fuel cleanup around homes. The scathing report was issued just last March 22, less than a month ago, and the message did NOT hit home, apparently. The first thing TRPA did was send it’s “regulators” out to find and punish a homeowner for doing exactly what the Commission recommended: creating defensible space.

What concerns regulators is the cutting, pruning and hacking of trees solely for clearer vistas.

“Everybody loves the forested alpine lake look of Lake Tahoe,” said John Singlaub, TRPA’s executive director. “We’re simply trying to keep it that way.”

No, John, what everybody loves is NOT having their homes burned down. Singlaub, btw, was the chief recalcitrant in the entire post-Angora process, the man with a thousand excuses, and someone who stubbornly refuses to get the message.

The homeowner in question did not clearcut the mountainside; she had her landscape contractor cut six trees. As it turned out, three of them were over the line on her neighbor’s property. Her neighbor, as it turns out, is the USFS. The USFS, as it turns out, has a program of buying up housing lots and currently owns over 3,800 1/4 acre parcels peppered among neighborhoods around the lake. This “urban intermix” program, as it turns out, was spearheaded by John Singlaub and TRPA, although it is paid for by the US Treasury.

Critics of government management of Tahoe’s prized forest lands have long said regulators go too far in telling property owners what they can do in their own backyards. The issue for Vincent, however, is what she cut in the backyard of her neighbor, the U.S. Forest Service.

Vincent, who has pleaded not guilty, is charged with theft and damaging government property. She’s scheduled for trial April 29 in U.S. District Court in Reno.

She declined requests for interviews, but her attorney, Scott Freeman of Reno, said the government is out to make an example of the 58-year-old retired technology worker. He said Vincent is an otherwise law-abiding citizen who made a mistake and is “completely and utterly freaked out by this.”

“We’re not talking about 250 trees, we’re talking about 2 1/2 trees,” said Freeman, noting that two of the ponderosa pines in question sprouted from the same stump.

No doubt, cutting your neighbor’s trees is wrong. It happens all the time, though, especially when property lines are not clearly marked. But the point is that cutting three trees at Lake Tahoe is not a big deal. In fact, cutting trees is how defensible space is created. TRPA is not into defensible space, however; they cling to the notion that trees are more valuable than homes. Surprisingly (perhaps, or perhaps not to the cynic) despite their “love” of trees, they know nothing about them.

On a recent tour Oliver and TRPA enforcement agent Steve Sweet stopped in front of a three-story, cedar-sided vacation home along Silvertip Drive in Incline Village, where not-so-rustic getaways regularly go for $2 million or more.

Behind the home stood an 80-foot-tall pine, perhaps 100 years old. Every limb, branch and needle had been slashed, leaving a naked trunk reaching some 70 feet into the air. The only foliage left was a spindly canopy at the very top.

Some trees compensate by growing taller than nature intended. The result can be a gangly, weaker tree more likely to blow over in a storm.

The rhetoric here is a little too much. So what if somebody pruned a tree? It is a unpleasantly extreme to report that “every limb, branch and needle had been slashed, leaving a naked trunk.” Oh, the brutality! And any understanding of botany is completely lacking.

First, trees have crowns; forests have canopies. The terminology is all screwed up. Second, pruning a tree will not make it grow taller faster. That alleged phenomenon does not happen in the real world. A severe pruning may stunt height growth, but only watering and fertilizer can increase it, and even then possibly not. Third, a pruned tree is not more likely to blow over, in fact the opposite. The bigger the “sail,” the more stress is put on the trunk during high winds. Pruning can help prevent a tree from blowing over. Fourth, pruning that removes low branches can prevent fires from laddering up into tree crowns, and is thus a highly recommended fire safety practice.

Fifth, nobody knows the Intent of Nature, since such does not exist. That is typical excruciating authoritarian claptrap. TRPA gives some bonehead a low-level functionary position and suddenly they start channeling Mother Nature? I think not. It is laughable arrogance born of ignorance.

But it’s about perspective: Boaters on the lake look up and see houses instead of forest.

“Without trees screening development around the lake, it has a much more urban appearance and feel,” said Rochelle Nason, director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe.

So the boaters in their million-dollar yachts are offended by seeing homes? That cuts both ways. Perhaps the homeowners are offended by seeing yachters on their “pristine” lake.

Shall we invoke Mark Twain again? At one time Sam Clemens captained steamships on the Mississippi River. There are no more ornate and gaudy boats than Mississippi steamships of the 19th century. Later Clemens built an excessively opulent mansion in Elmira, NY. So Mark Twain dabbled in both extremes.

Also at stake is the health of Tahoe’s proud pine forest, which already is mostly second-generation trees planted after Gold Rush-era miners cleared the basin to build Virginia City.

One of which was Mark Twain, btw. Pride has a lot to do with the forest problems at Lake Tahoe, no doubt. Pride goeth before a fall, or in Lake Tahoe’s case, before catastrophic forest fires that burn down entire neighborhoods.

Then there’s erosion.

With fewer, less-sturdy trees, more soil washes into the lake, threatening its trademark clarity.

“It’s one of our biggest challenges keeping dirt on the hill,” Singlaub said, noting that visitors can see about half as far into the depths of the lake as they could 50 years ago.

Forest fires lead to excessive erosion. That was one of the main points made by the Governors’ emergency Commission, whose report fell on deaf ears at the prideful TRPA.

Along Eagle Drive in Incline Village, six stumps dot the ridge that leads to Vincent’s vacation home. The clearing yields a spectacular view from her back patio.

Pride and envy. How dare a homeowner improve their view? In the egalitarian world of extreme equality, no one would get to have a better view than anyone else. It’s just not fair. The creeping logic of Marxism is creepy, to say the least.

Freeman said his client hired a contractor to remove several backyard trees fire officials had deemed potential threats to the home. He said they mistakenly crossed into adjacent U.S. Forest Service land and cut three additional pines.

“She believed they belonged to her,” he said.

Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment because the case is pending. Investigators found evidence that Vincent had tried to move markers showing the trees were on federal land.

Freeman denied that accusation, saying it’s all a misunderstanding he hopes to resolve before the case goes to trial.

If convicted, a judge could sentence Vincent to 20 years in prison and a fine of $500,000.

So a homeowner removes fire hazardous trees on the recommendation of fire officials, and then those selfsame officials want to fine her half a million dollars and throw her in the pokey for 20 years! There is something wrong with this picture. It is called entrapment.

We have allowed eco-nazis too much leash. Now authoritarian nature-channelers are entrapping private citizens with thuggish zeal. Our institutions of government have been corrupted by pusillanimous potentates and petty tyrants whose goal is holocaust, not public service. A war is being waged upon the citizenry by our own government. The situation is out of control. The voters of Lake Tahoe are well-advised to strip TRPA of its leadership and staff, to figuratively burn TRPA to ashes, before TRPA extends their similar program in reality to the voters.

14 Apr 2008, 11:24am
by Bob Z.


This is a fine essay, particularly the use of wonderful prose by Mark Twain describing a forest fire he had accidentally ignited.

I suspect that if he had set a fire in the exact same location 100 years earlier that nothing would have happened. At that time the local actions of people would have kept the ladder fuels under control and the rank manzanita would have likely existed as widely-spaced pruned shrubs yielding fruits and fuels at periodic intervals.

I must disagree with your opposition to John Singlaub’s statement, however. When John says “we are simply trying to keep [Lake Tahoe's forested lands] that way” I think he is right on target. The actions of these people are, truly, simplistic. Nature is dynamic,and people that can’t comprehend that simple fact — much less understand the purposes and results of pruning trees — should be forced to publicly admit their ignorance. Which Mr. Singlaub has done.

So far as the poor lady that is being subjected to this “environmental” idiocy is concerned, she most certainly should be held liable for her trespass, whether based on expert recommendation, or not. Typically, trees cut on adjacent lands that don’t belong to you have been penalized with fines for years. It is called “triple stumpage” and is paid to the legitimate landowner, not some form of morally bankrupt agency of nosy neighbors.

Have a legitimate forester measure the stumps, assess current market conditions and the actual sales value of the trees at this time, and then have Ms. Vincent write a check to the USFS for three times that amount — from which they can pay the forester for his or her services and put the remainder into the US Treasury.

Other thoughts?

14 Apr 2008, 11:34am
by Mike

It wasn’t the statement per se that I objected to, but the hypocrisy and duplicity behind it. If TRPA really wanted to keep Keep Tahoe Green, they would act to prevent catastrophic fires, not encourage them, as has been their programmatic style to date.

There is a turf war going on in Lake Tahoe, and the turf is private and public property. TRPA is exercising a bully mentality when they should be acting with humility and good faith.

It seems that many have visions of what Lake Tahoe should be. The reality is that it is home to a great many people, and those homes and homelands should be protected from assault by fire and/or by misguided bureaucratic zealotry.

14 Apr 2008, 11:48am
by Mike

And btw, the standard is double the value for negligence, and triple the value only if criminal intent is proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Appraisal values are not limited to timber value, either, but may include replacement value if the judge deems it that way.

In the case of fire hazardous trees, the judge may rule that the value was negative, i.e. the trees were more of a threat than an asset. I have been involved as an expert witness in court cases where timber trespass was admitted to, but the judgment to the plaintiff was a token dollar.

14 Apr 2008, 3:05pm
by Backcut

“Everybody loves the forested alpine lake look of Lake Tahoe,” said John Singlaub

Too bad that is NOT what is “natural” and “pristine” for the Tahoe Basin! We have to face it that Lake Tahoe is doomed because most people feel that it should be a National Park and that no tree should EVER be sold.

The truth is that the entirety of the basin is in danger of the worst kind of catastrophic fire. It’s funny that the boaters can’t look up and see all the dead trees that are lying on the ground beneath the overstocked flammable firs that have come to unnaturally dominate since the Comstock Lode days.

Tahoe is THE poster child for the forest un-management disaster that is continuing in the West.

14 Apr 2008, 3:34pm
by Tallac

If I forwarded you every piece of regulation foisted on the citizens of the Lake Tahoe Basin by the TRPA and a dozen more agencies, most heads would explode.

For instance, in the past 30+ years we were threatend with a $5,000 fine for removing a hazard tree. In the aftermath of the Angora Fire, Defensible Space is the new buzzword and in strange twist of logic, we will now be fined if we do not remove that hazard tree.

It would be laughable if they weren’t so pathetic in their reasoning skills. As with most government agencies, common sense is always lacking and a new law is written to cover their ignorance of the past.

Don’t get me started on the Shore Zone Plan that has been 20 years in the making. I think they’re still bickering over how many windows you can have facing the lake, among many other forms of control on your private property. Beats the hell out of me what that has to do with their original mission to preserve lake clarity.

For clarification re: TRPA Governing Board Members, while technically “appointed,” some of them are elected officials from surrounding jurisdictions (city council/county commission) and every now and then we get one that’s a moderating voice to the outside special interests that rule our lives.

14 Apr 2008, 4:02pm
by Mike

My mistake. I should have known that the eco-nazis were unelected bosses. Democracy in the U.S. was thrown in the dumpster long ago.

14 Apr 2008, 7:17pm
by bear bait

Busibodies. A nation of busibodies. Snooping into every facet of the local life and culture. Sneering fault finders doing their cynical best to be THE authority of how the neighborhood should look. Hey, sooner than later, with current direction, it will again be as black as Samuel Clemens left it not so long ago.

Oxygen and organic fuel are what makes fire. The more of either, the bigger the fire. Pretty easy concept. So keep fuels low, and the damage will be minimal. That earth-shattering concept came from Clovis people and was passed on to those who came after. You know, the people who came here before the ice had all melted and the forests began to retake the land. They built the forests in their mold of how things would best serve their needs. Primitive but effective. Burn early or burn late, but do burn, please. We would hope that our societal progression would lead us to use computers and machinery so that we might reduce fuels to acceptable levels, and then have seasonal burning to maintain fine fuels, and periodic tree removals to maintain acceptable tree and canopy spacing and fuel loading. Pretty simple until the busibodies get involved, and then everything goes to hell in a hand basket.

I suppose I should counsel my grandkids to get in the hand basket business.

15 Apr 2008, 1:45pm
by Mary Macnab

Somewhere in the middle of the 20th century forest homesteads here in the Southwest were resurveyed by the Forest Service. These consistently put the new boundary inside the the old boundary, often marked by a homestead fence.

Now it is claimed that the newer FS boundaries are ‘correct’ and yet the FS cannot legally take down a single one of the old fences as long as maintenance is kept up. They have ordered people to take down the old fences but had no authority to back up the demand. Who knows where the real borders are?

15 Apr 2008, 4:51pm
by Bob Z.


You need a lawyer. “Grandfather clause” and “rights of eminent domain” take on a different meaning from county to county and state to state — especially on federal lands.

My G-G-G grandmother successfully fought the federal government on such a claim, but it took place in Washington Territory in the 19th century and needed over 30 years and several lawyers to resolve. In her favor; but by then it was mostly an estate issue.

Good luck!



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