Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe’s value to the entire nation is obvious to anyone who visits it.  Upon seeing Lake Tahoe for the first time, Mark Twain wrote, “At last the Lake burst upon us — a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Today, however, the Lake is menaced by two immediate environmental threats: catastrophic wildfire and invasive species.  I address these issues through my work on HR 3382 (See Lake Tahoe Restoration) and other forest management bills such as the Resilient Federal Forests Act (See Forest Management).

Also of great concern is an economy that is suffering the crushing burdens of over-regulation and that is squeezing the middle class out of the region.  I have long advocated shifting local decision-making away from unelected regional board and back to the local communities that are most affected by these decisions.

Fire: The Greatest Environmental Threat

Lake Tahoe Summit – South Lake Tahoe, California – August 19, 2014

I want to thank Senator Feinstein for hosting this year’s summit and for directing its attention to the threat of catastrophic wildfire, the greatest natural threat facing the Lake Tahoe region.  It utterly destroys forests and their habitats; it makes a mockery of all of our air and water quality laws; it threatens life and property throughout our mountain communities.  It consumes vast resources to fight and it depresses tourism and the local economy that depends on it.

In recent years, our forests have been devastated by a dramatic increase in wildfires, as well as pestilence and disease.

The facts are clear: over the last three decades, we have seen a dramatic decline in excess timber removed from the mountains and a corresponding increase in acreage destroyed by forest fire in the same period.

As one forester put it years ago, “The excess timber will come out of the forests one way or the other.  It will either be carried out or it will be burned out – but it WILL come out.”  A generation ago, we carried it out and we enjoyed healthy and fire-resistant forests AND a thriving economy.  The auctions of excess timber provided a steady stream of revenue to our government to help pay for the proper management of our forests.

Tahoe still bears the scars of the Angora Fire of 2007.  Last year, the Sierra suffered the biggest fire in its history, destroying 400 square miles of forest land.  Timely salvage of the fire-killed timber could have provided millions of dollars for forest restoration.  Instead, the timber rots in place while environmental reviews for salvage drag on a full year later.

For a generation, we have imposed increasingly restrictive obstacles to proper thinning, harvesting and fuel reduction in our forests, and we now suffer the result.  Ironically, policies designed to preserve habitats for endangered species ultimately resulted in the incineration of those very habitats.

This ought to be self-evident: there is no greater threat to the environment and economy of the Tahoe Basin than a catastrophic forest fire – and our efforts should be prioritized to place this at the top of the list for policy change.

I fully endorse the objections raised by the Basin Fire Chiefs to the Basin Management Plan.

The Fire Chiefs are absolutely correct: catastrophic wildfire – especially near our communities – is NOT a forest management tool.  It IS an imminent threat to life, property, wildlife, habitats, watersheds, our forests, our economy — and it ought to be treated accordingly.

The tragedy of the 2012 Reading fire – when a fire was deliberately allowed to explode out of control in the name of fire ecology despite urgent pleas from fire officials – must never be repeated.

The right of home owners to clear defensible perimeters established by fire professionals should be guaranteed.

Excess marketable timber should be sold and removed from the forests, with the proceeds used to provide for forest restoration and the reduction of ladder fuels.  The sale of excess timber and the use of biomass generation can substantially supplement the cost of fuels reduction, making the proper management of our forests cost-effective once again.

The escalating costs of fighting fires should be treated as other natural disasters and not funded by shorting fuel reduction budgets.

And while we’re at it, isn’t it long past time that the debts of the Nevada Fire Safe Council were paid and the federal bureaucratic pettifogging ceased, so that the contractors and our fire protection districts can get back to their vital work?

The Angora Fire gave us a taste of the danger posed by catastrophic wildfire, and I compliment Sen. Feinstein for choosing to focus on this threat in this year’s Tahoe Summit.  The policy of the last thirty years has failed and failed miserably, and the situation today cries out for return of the sound forest management practices that once minimized the risk of fire and maximized the health of Tahoe’s forests, the safety of Tahoe’s community and the prosperity of Tahoe’s economy.

Listen to the People of Tahoe

Lake Tahoe Summit – Lake Tahoe, Nevada – August 13, 2012

I appreciate the invitation to speak today among these distinguished public officials about the future of Lake Tahoe, and I especially want to thank Sen. Heller for bringing us all together today for a candid discussion about the future of Lake Tahoe.

When I visit with community groups here – not the politicians or the professional environmentalists, but the shopkeepers and employees who actually live and work here – their singular struggle is with a stagnating economy and a staggering unemployment rate hovering around 16 percent.

The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors last year received an extensive economic study of the Tahoe Basin. It warns that the occupancy rate of hotels here is running at a dismal 30 percent.  Food stamp usage is up 40 percent in the last four years.  School enrollment is down 35 percent over the past decade. The basin’s population has plunged by nine percent.  The study’s manager warns – quote – “The middle class is fleeing the (Tahoe) basin in droves.”

Three years ago at this summit, I said, “I hope today we can agree that restoring the proper balance between the environment and the economy is not only the prudent thing to do, but also the right the thing to do.”

That hasn’t happened.

TRPA’s executive director seems to be trying to move toward a more sympathetic approach to local concerns, but she’s often stymied by her Board.  Nowhere in TRPA’s mission statement is there a word about the economy.  You have to dig deep into their web site to find even a passing reference to it.

The Tahoe citizens who call my office complain of being thwarted in their attempts to protect their property from fire danger, or to make minor and harmless improvements to their homes, or of being assessed exorbitant fees, or of being denied simple permits by boards they can’t even elect.

They feel they have lost control of their own communities to state and regional agencies that are utterly unresponsive to the people who actually live here.

They feel that every attempt to develop or make property improvements is crushed by a permitting process that often costs more than the project itself. In one case, a homeowner who needed to make $8,000 in pier repairs found it would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 just in permit fees.

Worse, none of the agencies coordinate with each other, so one agency will require actions that another agency prohibits.

The Lahontan Water Board is the worst of them.  It repeatedly blocked fuel reduction projects by the US Forest Service’s Tahoe Basin Unit, until the Forest Service’s new manager, Nancy Gibson, went to a Board hearing in April and essentially said “the next fire is on you.”

Homewood resort is in desperate need of a long-term use permit for winter skiing that has been going on there for 40 years – and upon which $40 million of private financing depends.  Yet, even after receiving approval from TRPA and the US Forest Service, the effort is now stalled by environmental litigation.

Today’s theme is private-public partnerships for environmental improvement, but there’s not going to be a private sector left unless we get serious about economic improvement.

Tahoe’s unique environment and breath-taking beauty comprise a vital foundation both for tourism and for the quality of life of its residents.

And as for quality of life, people are fleeing Lake Tahoe, and a lot of them are heading to the Nevada desert.  With all due respect, no conceivable act of God could turn Lake Tahoe into a less desirable place for people to live and work and raise a family than the Nevada desert.  Only acts of government could do that.  And they have.

Lake Tahoe has no more zealous or trustworthy guardians of its environment and its economy than the people who actually live here, and it is high time they had these decisions restored to them through local elections.

I offer these thoughts as something for us on the platform to consider as we drive away this afternoon, and leave the residents of Tahoe to live with the result of the decisions that they once made for themselves – but that are now made for them by regional boards they can’t elect.

Protecting the Environment AND Restoring the Economy

Lake Tahoe Summit – Lake Tahoe, Nevada – August 20, 2009

It is an honor to be here today in the presence of such Titans as Senators Feinstein and Ensign and Governor Gibbons, who have done so much for the environment and the economy of Lake Tahoe.  And it is, after all a dual mission that we have: first, to preserve and protect this beautiful resource for the enjoyment of future generations and second, within these parameters, to maximize its use for the enjoyment of the present generation.

These two goals are not mutually exclusive.

No one understands this better than the communities of Lake Tahoe, who recognize the importance of this Lake and its surrounding landscape to the quality of life of the people who live here and to an economy built in part on those who come here to share that experience.

A generation ago, we honored and promoted the natural union between the environment and the economy. I believe the future of the Lake depends upon restoring that balance.

One example is the ongoing work to prevent the infestation of invasive species of mussels into the Lake, which would devastate both the Lake and the economy built upon its health and beauty. I salute the proactive efforts undertaken to address this threat.

Another example of the natural union between the environment and the economy is fire suppression.  It should be obvious to all that there is nothing more environmentally devastating to a forest than a forest fire.  A generation ago, we managed our forests wisely, removing the overgrowth and overpopulation that fuels fires and facilitates disease and infestation.  This practice not only promoted healthy forests and reduced the severity and frequency of fires, but it also contributed to the prosperity of the community.

The Angora Fire of 2007 was the result of abandoning this balance and stands as damning testimony of what happens when this balance is lost.

The economy took an estimated hit of about $1 billion dollars and increased erosion and plumes of ash threatened the clarity of the lake and made a mockery of our air quality laws.

Many bi-partisan efforts have been undertaken to restore that balance, the Herger-Feinstein Forest Recovery Act being a stellar example.  Yet, as we have seen, endless litigation now threatens the fruits of these endeavors.

We have seen many positive steps in the environmental recovery of the region. The Lake’s clarity measurement is now in the range where it has been for about the past eight years and is beginning to level off.

But what is not recovering is the Tahoe economy. Unemployment stands at 13.8%. Declining enrollment has led to the closure of two schools and an economy that is not able to provide services and products for local residents.

Economic recovery is just as important as environmental recovery. In fact, they go hand-in-hand. I hope today we can agree that restoring the proper balance between the environment and the economy is not only the prudent thing to do, but also the right the thing to do.

In this respect, I need to take a moment to speak for many of my constituents who feel that their property rights have been abused by decisions made by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

I have heard many complaints by citizens who have been thwarted in their attempts to protect their property from fire danger, or to make minor and harmless improvements to their homes, or have been assessed exorbitant fees, or who have been denied simple permits by a board that they can’t even elect.

I believe that these complaints are undermining public support for the legitimate objectives that both states and the federal government had when they established TRPA.  Structural reforms need to be entertained, including stronger local participation in decision-making, and reform of a vote process that can deny needed permits with as few as just three votes out of 14 on the board.

Preserving and protecting Lake Tahoe for the enjoyment of future generations should not preclude the enjoyment of Lake Tahoe by the current generation.  I am looking forward to working with my colleagues and my constituents toward restoring and improving both the environment and the economy of the Lake Tahoe Basin.  And that begins with restoring a balanced approach that will maintain public support for the vital work remaining before us.