15 Minutes: Shooting hoops in Soviet Union sparked passion of group’s director
Tony Brunello is the executive director of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, a research group most known for its exchange program to Russia’s Lake Baikal. Brunello’s family has been in Tahoe for six generations. He has worked in Africa and Russia, and for the World Bank.
He spoke to us about the shortcomings of the TRPA and how a trip to the former Soviet Union in 1988 with the South Tahoe High School basketball team was pivotal in opening his eyes to the world.
What is the Tahoe-Baikal Institute?
Our mission is to protect mountain lake watersheds through research, training and exchanges.
Lake Baikal is a lake in Russian that holds 20 percent of the world’s unfrozen fresh water. We are helping develop legislation in Russia to apply lessons learned from Lake Tahoe to help them define thresholds and improve water quality at Baikal.
In Tahoe, we do restoration projects and specific research.
How did you become interested in this stuff?
What got me interested in travel is the basketball team at South Tahoe High School went to the former Soviet Union in 1988. That’s what sparked me into all the international work since.
Did you play another team there?
We played seven teams while we were there. They ranged from pickup games to professional teams that killed us. It was a lot of fun. We were definitely high school kids.
Did it change your world view?
You’re in a glass box looking out, you only have a few times when you go out and have that risk of getting away from your structured environment and realize how clueless you are about politics and language and that kind of thing.
Do you know Russian?
I’ve lived there two years. I was a participant in Tahoe Baikal in 1993, and that’s where I first got involved. Like the trip to Russia with the basketball team, it’s an awesome opportunity for people who don’t get the chance to travel to have an educational trip.
What is your degree?
I have a masters in environmental economics from University College of London.
Do you think there are too many environmental groups in Tahoe?
There’s not enough balance of watchdog groups. That’s a major issue. Collaboration is getting better, because they have to re-establish these thresholds.
Is caring about the environment a luxury?
The more income people have the more they value the environment. In Russian Mongolia, they are behind the curve a little.
In the Tahoe Basin, economics is not used, there’s not a cost effectiveness analysis. Your indicator is lake clarity. Everything is focused on the blueness of the lake, the scenic quality. Everyone else in the world is focusing on water quality, air quality, things that affect human health.
It’s only good in that there are only a few regions in the world that can bring in this type of revenue. That’s one of the only ways we can make money.
When will taking care of the environment become more of a necessity?
That’s why environmental economics is interesting. You’re trying to put a regular price on environmental values, and internalize all costs. It’s not until it effects humans that people pay attention, until there is a catastrophe.
Where do you think Tahoe is headed?
Tahoe is such a microcosm for other areas. I’m generally optimistic. You’ve got so many smart people, so much money and so much political support. The next three years should be an exciting time here, because they will reassess all these thresholds. People don’t realize that it’s an environmental experiment in progress.
I’m pessimistic because I don’t think there is a good watchdog in the basin that’s really paying attention to whether we are putting all the money and effort in the right places.
I think the TRPA is doing a good job, but they are set up so that the people in the institution are put in direct conflict with their managers. You’ve got all the business interests on the board, while all the staff are green.
How long have you been in Tahoe?
I was born and raised here. Born at Barton. I returned here three years ago.
I’ve had family for six generations in the Tahoe region. My great-great-grandmother, her name was Sierra Nevada Phillips, they ran a lodge up near Sierra-at-Tahoe. They served all the gold panners traveling west. Obviously they did well.
So Phillips Tract was named after them?
What’s in your future?
We are a having a baby in March.
I have to say I think this is a great place to grow up. If they cut sports – obviously that was one thing that made me what I am today – they would cut a major vehicle for students to get outside Tahoe, to see what’s outside our borders here. Not just the sports, but the support that went into it. Sports were the vehicle for all the things I thought were so helpful for me growing up.