How Surprising is That Really?: “To Fight Wildfire, California Gets a Surprising Solution: a New Sawmill”

A new sawmill under construction near Lake Tahoe is offering hope to state officials and some environmental advocates. Its first job will be to process wood from trees killed in the massive Caldor Fire in 2021, before moving onto smaller trees. Photographer: Patrick Mouzawak/Bloomberg

A Bloomberg article today talks about a new sawmill under construction near Lake Tahoe. Some of us may have a “back to the future” vibe about this. Others may wonder about whether communities without the substantial resources and economic/political clout.. think casinos, resorts, Billionaire’s Row, ski areas and so on, might also be assisted by having a sawmill in the community. Lake Tahoe is the place with its own CE, after all.

Under our legislation, active forest management of up to 10,000 acres at Tahoe now qualifies for a categorical exclusion from NEPA. Forest Service Region 5 Manager Randy Moore told me that this takes their environmental assessment from more than 800 pages to less than 40 pages, and Tahoe Basin Supervisor Jeff Marsolais reports that their first project under this new authority took just four months to permit.

Perhaps other philanthropic organizations could support traditional underserved rural communities? The U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities is doing that in John Day, Oregon, but perhaps the larger philanthropic foundations?

Check out the Tahoe Fund’s website it looks like they have an enormous variety of projects, trails, sugar pine restoration, scholarships for forestry education (could forestry be cool again?), including a grant to a biomass plant:

The Tahoe Fund has made Forest Health our top priority, with a focus on increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration in the Tahoe Basin. A major issue our public land managers face is the lack of places to offload woody biomass. There is currently nowhere feasible to take the excess biomass, resulting in hundreds of thousands of burn piles sitting in the Basin.

The Tahoe Fund has been working with Sierra Valley Enterprises, the new owners of a biomass facility in Loyalton that was shut down in January of 2020, to help get it back up and running. To help facilitate the financing required to re-open this facility, the Tahoe Fund hired TSS Consultants to develop a Resource Study of available forest biomass and log supply within the economic transport distance of the Loyalton site.

Anyway, here are some excerpts from the story. I think you can read Bloomberg News for free if you register.

The Tahoe Fund helped convene the sawmill project leaders, which include Shinn and Kevin Leary, the CEO of a Reno-based private investment firm, Hallador Investment Advisors. In 2021, it commissioned a study that examined how much supply would be available for a sawmill operation in the region. It cited recent funding and planning by the state of California and the US Forest Service to increase fuel reduction treatments such as thinning as well as prescribed fire. That support should help keep the supply of logs for the sawmill flowing, with the oversight of environmental regulators, said Berry of the Tahoe Fund.

“Everyone has a role to play here,” she said.

The Carson City mill will be built on land owned by the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Wendy Loomis, the executive director of the tribe’s business arm, said the project will aim to hire tribal members for jobs that will be available in the sawmill.

“When we look for projects, our first priority is to support the Tribe’s vision and mission statement to help Mother Earth,” Loomis said. “Number two is to create workforce development. So this accomplishes both of those things.”


Several environmental groups and restoration experts offered cautious support for the types of thinning projects that the new sawmill is supposed to help. A spokesperson for the Nature Conservancy, the largest environmental nonprofit in the US, said that while it did not specifically endorse the Carson City project, “we can envision a future where a small-diameter sawmill, properly sited and sized, could help scale forest restoration efforts.” The Sierra Nevada Alliance, an environmental nonprofit based in the Tahoe area, similarly advocates for healthy forest restoration.

relates to To Fight Wildfire, California Gets a Surprising Solution: a New Sawmill
The plans for the Tahoe Forest Products sawmill in Carson City.
Photographer: Patrick Mouzawak/Bloomberg

Last year’s Caldor fire provided some evidence that thinning and prescribed fire — which was developed and practiced by Indigenous people for millennia — are beneficial for forests. In areas that had been treated, flames dropped down enough to leave patches of forest still green and alive, officials said at the time.

Not everyone is in favor of the Carson City plan. Some residents have registered concerns with elected officials about noise impacts related to the mill. And there are some scientists and activists who oppose all forms of logging, arguing that forest thinning is a smokescreen for the economic interests of timber companies. A lawsuit impacting a restoration-focused logging plan in Yosemite National Park reflects that ongoing tension.

Battles, the Berkeley scientist, said those voices are in the scientific minority. And the Carson City sawmill isn’t the only project of its kind. Further north, in Quincy, California, another sawmill is being built to tackle the acres of dead trees killed by last year’s Dixie fire.

“We need to do more forest management, whatever it is,” he said. “But we need the capacity for it, and one way to get that is to sell the wood and make sawmills that can handle it.”

For groups that “oppose all forms of logging, arguing that forest thinning is a smokescreen for the economic interests of timber companies”.  But what about all the timber industry-free places like Lake Tahoe or many other places that have the (identical bolded above) problem? Thinned trees in piles?

I’d really like to have that discussion with someone who represents that point of view, perhaps a TSW reader? Otherwise it sounds like a “bad industry, we can’t work with them” thing. And I think this “bad industry” attitude can actually work against environmental goals, be it decarbonization, keeping green forests on the landscape, helping fire suppression folks do their job, and so on.  There are plenty of ENGOs without that attitude, so I wonder what underlies it.  In fact, I was kind of surprised by the relatively lukewarm TNC quote.

In this case, it would have been helpful if the reporter had pushed back.  Should they (public and private) not thin? What else should they do with the piles?

12 thoughts on “How Surprising is That Really?: “To Fight Wildfire, California Gets a Surprising Solution: a New Sawmill””

  1. Yes, there are still people out there who worship the “Jewel of the Sierra Nevada”, in all of its “pristine” beauty. (Methinks they do not know the meaning of that word) There are a lot of things that cannot be addressed with timber sales. The dead tree ‘carcasses’ from previous drought still populate the forests floor. Like it or not, there are HUGE ‘natural’ piles of large fuels in the Tahoe Basin, waiting for that inevitable spark to torch it all off.

    Being a former resident of North Tahoe/Truckee, and a former fire lookout there, I’ve seen the massive buildups of fuels.

  2. Good idea. Wrong end of the solution. Japan, among other countries, considers using biomass burning to make heat energy to create electricity to be “green,” as do EU countries. CA and the West needs wood pellet operations to process thinned trees too small to make veneer and dimension lumber. If burned wood can work in the process, fine. If not, all the more reason to thin light earlier To get “ahead” of the per acre excessive tree counts you need much earlier entries to remove the “extra carrots” in order for those remaining to have more water, sun and nutrients. Bigger carrots and less of them facilitates controlled wet season under burning of one minute to one hour fuels.

    I don’t know who and how albedo is addressed above the mean annual snow line, but the real issue with ground cover and shade is “aspect,” the angle of the sun and the comparable slope angles and direction they face. As the sun falls further into the southern arc, daily there is more shade and cooler streams as late summer marches towards fall. So what is the impact of average winter snow coverage as to its ability to reflect solar energy back to the ether of space? How much heat is lost because the’ re fewer tree crowns letting more snow to ground level, and less tree structure blocking heat from escaping? Fifty years ago, there were USFS clear cuts in watersheds for domestic potable use that were thin, long strips, aligned to receive snow to ground and have remaining standing trees shade it in spring for later melting. Are there any records or present use of that kind of vegetative tree management or did NEPA and ESA issues erase the idea?
    Snow fall declines are certainly because of too much tree cover, and the loss of snow to sublimation, all that water going from solid (snow) to a gas (water vapor) without ever melting into a liquid to become either ice or water in the snow and water to enter the soil or become runoff in warming events seasonally.

    That should be a top level literature investigation, and papers compiled. Re-inventing wheels is so sad. Time can have one result early and later have a much different result. If we don’t examine the past will we know the long term impacts if we don’t look to see if there are any? How much water is lost to the watershed from the results of vast and complete tree cover totally protected as best man can from fire and human use of trees? Are we the reason and pre 1492 aboriginal fire regimes the answer? And how can those be mimicked in order to have less smoke and less fire? If the folks here for at least 16,500 years figured it out and used what they had to provide a “wild” that fed, clothed and provided security, that we are not able to today is sort of humbling. Not that I am saying career bureaucrats can be humbled by anything. That, too, is another issue. The inertia of government to do the same, year after year, with no interest in the outcomes, only the process, gives life to ENGOs. and a lot of lawyers who are inadvertent destroyers of vast landscapes and all they contain.
    I got a Boy Scout LifeSaving merit badge over 65 years ago. Never saved a life that I can remember. But I always thought I could, and should make the effort if a lifesaving event arose.

    • Science question – is this quote from McClintock correct: “We have to space trees so that scarcer snow doesn’t get trapped in dense canopies and evaporate before it can reach the ground.” Does snow evaporate faster/more “trapped in dense canopies” (maybe not exposed to the sun), than on the ground (where the lack of canopy exposes it to the sun)? (Wasn’t the Forest Service created to keep more trees on the land to obtain “favorable conditions of water flow” instead of it all running off after being logged?)

      • Jon, I can think of three places where research was done on removing trees and water flows.. but not the snow angle as far as I know.
        My view.. just try to keep trees alive in this world as it is today.
        1. Hubbard Brook in New Hampshire
        2. Wyoming, I think they talked about it on the MedBow at some point in the past.

        Note: I only quoted McClintock because he was the first cite who came up.
        Here’s some stuff on Roger Bales’ work in the Sierra:
        “Roger Bales: One thing we found is that medium-intensity fire is approximately equal to the restoration treatments the Forest Service and others are trying to do. And when you have that medium-intensity fire or the restoration treatment, you can reduce evapotranspiration, which means more runoff.

        In the American River basin, the highest we saw was a net evapotranspiration reduction equal to about 55,000 acre-feet of water per year. This is for all of the American River basin. So when you add up all the fires in the American River basin over that time period, from 1990 to 2008, by 2008 you had gained 55,000 acre-feet more runoff compared to 1990.

        People would love to have that amount of water. And that does not get us into the most recent decade of more high-intensity fires. This was just the period when we had the best data.

        Now, you go down the Kings River basin, in the southern Sierra, and you didn’t gain nearly as much. Why? Well, the Kings is water-limited. They don’t get as much precipitation. You take out some trees, and the other trees that are left sort of say, “OK great, more water for us!” The potential for runoff gains basically increases as you go further north.”

        I loved the idea of trees saying “oh great, more water for us!” exactly what thinning does in those kinds of dry areas.

      • Generally, the literature suggests harvest openings have more snow accumulation due to less interception and sublimation. Newer research has indicated that large patch sizes (e.g., larger than typical harvest unit) created by fire and insect mortality might not provide this function.

        • I think that was more the question I was asking, but I may be confused about the relationship between “accumulation” and “runoff” (Sharon’s reply). I assume that more of the former leads to more of the latter, but there is also the timing of runoff to think about. Tree cover leads to retaining water longer for later summer flows, right? But maybe if you’ve built a reservoir this doesn’t matter to human users.

          • Trees are thirsty, and cutting them can increase overall water yields and smaller peak flow events. These changes are generally realized at around the 20% harvest level. Smaller catchments usually see an increase in summer baseflow after harvest, and these increases turn to water deficits as younger and thirstier trees fully occupy the site.

            I think Roger Bales can be guilty of overselling the harvest=more water concept, though.

  3. “….this takes their environmental assessment from more than 800 pages to less than 40 pages….” – Rep Tom McClintock

    I’d challenge Rep. Tom McClintock (Lifetime LCV score, 4%) and his office to point out all the 800+ page environmental assessments that are supposedly out there.


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