Bark Beetle Infestation Spurs Multifaceted Study

University Park, Pa. -- A beetle infestation near Lake Tahoe, Nev., may lead to a better understanding of pre-European contact forest ecology and shed light on the early history of the area, according to a Penn State geographer.

Researchers are looking at the history of the forests, the incidence of fire and signs of the early settlers -- including Chinese laborers and Basque shepherds -- in this area closely linked with exploitation of the Comstock Lode.

The reason for the sudden interest in this area is a bark beetle infestation in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The insects have killed or damaged large stands of wood, which pose a major fire hazard for the area. The solution is to allow salvage harvesting and controlled burning, so that the forests can return to a healthy state.

"Many environmentalists are concerned because they believe this area is old growth forest," says Dr. Alan Taylor, associate professor of geography. "It's not, but it is second growth forest."

That is actually part of the problem, most of the forests were last cut 140 years ago to supply fuel and timbers for mining the Comstock Lode near Virginia City, Nev. In the early 1900s, fire eradication on federal land became mandatory and most state and local governments followed suit.

The regrown forests are now 120 years old and are two to ten times more dense than the original forests. These trees now compete intensely for resources, especially water. Drought, combined with the absence of fire which thins forests, has predisposed the trees to the beetle attack which is now killing them off.

However, before salvage logging or controlled burning can take place, a full investigation of the archaeological sites and the environment is underway. Archaeologists have already surveyed the area for mill sites, camp sites, remnant roads and both prehistoric and historic occupation.

The Comstock Lode, which was discovered in 1859, supplied silve

Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
Penn State

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