Vegetation Preservation

To maintain vegetation community richness and diversity, protect uncommon plant communities and sensitive plants, and increase the extent of old conifer forests.

Lake Tahoe lies within a unique geologic Region in the Sierra Nevada. Lake Tahoe’s natural rim sits at an elevation of 6,223 feet, and the surrounding mountain peaks reach heights of up to 10,886 feet. A strong rain shadow effect causes a pattern of decreasing precipitation from west to east, and this with topographic effects produces many localized climates (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997). Elevation gradients and local climate variability produce a diversity of vegetation types; for example, the most recent vegetation map of the Region identified over 67 discrete types (Greenberg et al. 2006). Tree dominated vegetation is most abundant, followed by shrub dominated, with a small proportion of herbaceous dominated types (Greenberg et al. 2006).

 

A total of 1,077 vascular plant species have been confirmed in the Region with another 360 possibly occurring. In addition, the Region is home to 115 species of non-vascular plants (Murphy and Knopp 2000). There are 14 special status plant species[1] documented in the Region (11 vascular and three non-vascular), and an additional 14 special status plant species may occur (either suitable habitat occurs, or plants are known only from historic records) but have not been documented (McKnight and Rowe 2015). In addition, 13 species are on a U.S. Forest Service ‘watch list,’ and one species, whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is a candidate for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Tahoe yellow cress (TYC) is the only plant listed as endangered by California and Nevada. In 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined not to list TYC based on the strength of the TYC conservation plan and the regional partners’ success in implementing the plan over the last 20 years.

 

Humans have occupied the Tahoe Region for at least 8,000 years (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997), and the pattern and condition of its vegetation today are in part a reflection of past and current human activities (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Murphy and Knopp 2000, Taylor 2007). Prior to the early 1800s, the Washoe people occupied the Tahoe Region. Natural resource management by the Washoe over at least 1,300 years, in combination with natural processes, maintained a diversity of forest types (Murphy and Knopp 2000). Extensive logging activities to support the Comstock era mining boom began in 1859, and within 40 years approximately 60 percent of the Tahoe watershed had been clear-cut (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Murphy and Knopp 2000). The remaining unlogged land was generally alpine, barren, or inaccessible (Murphy and Knopp 2000). As a result, most forestlands of the Region are less than 150 years old, with few examples of young and very old forest stands (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Murphy and Knopp 2000). Livestock grazing also had pervasive effects on the Region’s vegetation during and after the Comstock era. Sheep grazing was ubiquitous in the Region’s forests and shrublands, and was so intensive that the understory was often denuded and browse species were extirpated from some areas (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Murphy and Knopp 2000). Meanwhile cattle were grazed in all of the Region’s meadows and in subalpine areas (Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Murphy and Knopp 2000). A grazing allotment system was put in place in the 1930s, limiting livestock to specific areas.

 

After the period of intensive logging, federal and state governments began acquiring lands in and around the Tahoe Region in 1899 and intensified acquisition in the 1930s; today the Forest Service manages 78 percent of the Region (Elliott-Fisk et al., 1996; USFS LTBMU, 2015). Little active management other than fire suppression occurred over the past 100 to 150 years until the late 1970s when fuels reduction treatments began. As a result, much of the forestland is even-aged and densely stocked (McKelvey et al. 1996, Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Taylor 2007, Beaty and Taylor 2008). Vegetation types that depend on frequent fire to maintain them such as  Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi) are gradually being replaced by shade-tolerant species such as white fir (Abies concolor]) (McKelvey et al. 1996, Elliot-Fisk et al. 1997, Taylor 2007). The long history of fire suppression, combined with periods of drought and insect-induced mortality, has resulted in stands with high concentrations of hazardous fuels (Murphy and Knopp 2000, Barbour et al. 2002, Beaty and Taylor 2008, Raumann and Cablk 2008). This condition has increased the threat of catastrophic wildfire and is typical of a forest where natural disturbance processes have been excluded. Since the 2007 Angora fire in South Lake Tahoe, several land management agencies have intensified fuel reduction treatments in conifer forests in the Region, especially in areas surrounding urban development (e.g Marlow et al. 2007).

 

Housing, commercial, and infrastructure construction has also influenced today’s vegetation patterns (e.g. Claassen and Hogan 2002). Not only has vegetation been cleared, but the composition of remaining vegetation has been changed through landscaping. These changes in cover and composition have resulted in increased erosion and nutrient runoff from developed lots (Claassen and Hogan 2002, Grismer and Hogan 2005), and the introduction of non-native species into the Region. A major effect of urbanization has been the loss and degradation of the Region’s wetlands, with approximately 75 percent of the marshlands and 50 percent of the meadows degraded since 1900 (Murphy and Knopp 2000). Consequently, the conservation of the remaining wetland and riparian vegetation types is critical.

 

Global climate change also poses a threat to the integrity of the Region’s vegetation communities and plant species. Warming temperatures and decreased snowpack due to less snow and more rain and earlier snowmelt are already occurring, and are predicted to continue for the Sierra Nevada (e.g. Hayhoe et al. 2004, Dettinger 2005, Safford et al. 2012). In the Lake Tahoe Region, these changes appear to be happening at an accelerated pace (Coats 2010). These changes are predicted to cause range shifts, re-sorting of species associations, extirpations, and extinctions in high elevation vegetation areas such as the Lake Tahoe Region (e.g. Seastedt et al. 2004, Loarie et al. 2008, Tomback and Achuff 2010). These changes have already begun, and will likely affect both common and uncommon plant communities and species. For example, Jeffrey pine is widespread in montane elevations in the Region today, but a recent study suggested populations are declining in low elevation areas, expanding in mid elevation, and slowly expanding in higher elevations (Gworek et al. 2007). Whitebark pine, a keystone high elevation conifer of western North America including the Sierra Nevada, has experienced widespread mortality due to the combined effects of warming and increased severity of pathogens such as native mountain pine beetle and non-native white pine blister rust (Tomback and Achuff 2010); hence its status as a candidate for federal listing as a threatened species. A study on the potential distribution of whitebark pine under forecasted climate change scenarios in British Columbia found 73 percent of current habitat could be lost, but alpine areas could become suitable habitat (Hamann and Wang 2006). Elevations in the Tahoe Region, are not high enough to support upslope migration of whitebark pine, and this important vegetation type could be extirpated from the region by climatic changes. Many of the Region’s high elevation species could be extirpated given the relatively low elevations of the area (e.g. Loarie et al. 2008). This includes the Freel Peak cushion plant community, and many of the Region’s sensitive plant species. The Region’s wetlands are also vulnerable, with a drier climate potentially leading to lower water tables which are critical for sustaining fens (e.g. Cooper et al. 1998), while earlier and more intensive snow melt and rain events may alter flow regimes and increase erosion.

 

Today, approximately 85 percent of the land in the Region is managed by federal and state agencies. The majority of the remaining 15 percent is privately owned, with a small percentage owned by local districts and governments. The high percentage of public ownership represents a significant opportunity for coordinating the conservation and restoration of the plant communities in the Lake Tahoe Region. On private lands too, responsible stewardship and management of vegetation resources remains key to their sustainability.

 

Prior to the adoption of threshold standards, TRPA established two value statements related to vegetation conservation and management in the Region: “1) provide for a wide mix and increased diversity of plant communities in the Tahoe Basin, including such unique ecosystems as wetlands, meadows, and other riparian vegetation; and 2) conserve threatened, endangered, and sensitive plant species and uncommon plant communities of the Lake Tahoe Basin.” These values guided the development of the vegetation threshold standards and remain important values today.

 

Threshold standards for the late seral and old growth forest ecosystems indicator reporting category were adopted in 2001 in response to the U.S. Forest Service Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment.[2] Threshold standards and associated indicators used to measure the progress toward meeting the threshold standards are presented in Table 6-1.

 

[1] Special status species are generally thought of as having low abundance, limited distributions, or small population sizes. Special status plant species are identified through an evaluation of multiple parameters that may include any or all of the following criteria:

  • Rarity or limited distribution throughout the species’ range or the region
  • Endemism (species endemic to the Basin are found only within the basin and nowhere else)
  • Presence of threats and perceived vulnerability to local extirpation or extinction

[2] USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Region. 2001.  Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Reporting Categories and Indicators

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