Lake Tahoe Basin Trees Perishing Faster Than Ever Before: Here’s Why

by Shelby Scott
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Widespread enduring drought claims responsibility for many of the wildfires that have scorched the Western U.S. in recent years. However, on a smaller scale, drought conditions have also led to the rapid demise of many of the Lake Tahoe Basin’s iconic fir trees, which are perishing faster than ever before.

According to Newsweek, areas of the Lake Tahoe Basin most heavily affected by drought, and therefore most rapidly losing their tree populations, are near Fallen Leaf Lake and North Lake Tahoe. Rita Mustatia, a forest silviculturist for the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service, further spoke about how extremely dry conditions in recent years have contributed to the disappearance of Lake Tahoe’s trees.

“Drought and the stress brought on by drought conditions increases the potential for the spread of insects and diseases that can infest, cause damage to or kill trees,” Mustatia said.

Per the outlet, Lake Tahoe is iconic for its vast collection of pine and fir trees, with varied species including the Jeffrey pine, lodgepole pine, white fir, red fir, sugar pine, ponderosa pine, and western white pine. Sadly though, these once beautifully bright green evergreen trees are drying out, instead turning a less appealing shade of orange.

Altogether, a 2021 survey from the Forest Service estimates four thousand acres of pine trees have been affected by the drought and accompanying ailments in the Lake Tahoe Basin. 70,000 Lake Tahoe evergreens were reported dead at that time while more than a million had crisped out across the entire Tahoe National Forest.

Millions of Trees Already Dead in California Outside of Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe’s evergreen trees, known for maintaining their bright green needles year-round, certainly have scientists and environmentalists concerned as these hardy organisms rarely change color. However, on a broader scale, many of CA’s trees have burnt out due to a dangerous, decades-long drought.

Looking more generally at CA tree populations, the 2021 survey further found that 9.5 million trees statewide had died.

“This prolonged water deficit has had profound impacts on California forests,” the survey read, “killing trees outright and predisposing them to insect outbreaks and other damage agents.”

Aside from drought, however, overgrowth in the Sierra Nevadas is also partially responsible for the death of Lake Tahoe’s trees and trees across the coastal state overall. Per the outlet, fire suppression efforts have led to serious overgrowth meaning trees not yet dead from drought could die from a lack of nutrients, water, and sunlight as competition for sustenance increases.

Hugh Safford, a retired Forest Service Regional ecologist, had a bleak outlook on the rapid demise of Lake Tahoe and CA trees.

“Our forests are at mortal peril,” he said. “They are absolutely at mortal peril.”

To remedy the loss of these great pines and firs, Mustatia insists thinning tree populations could help by eliminating competition.

“An important way to manage the stress brought on by drought is to stay ahead of it,” she said. To do so, she recommends “conducting strategic thinning to reduce tree competition for water and nutrients.”