Environmentally sensitive areas find ways to cope | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Environmentally sensitive areas find ways to cope

Susan Wood and William Ferchland, Tribune staff writers

Few agencies in the United States carry the same clout and responsibility as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

First, the Tahoe agency has a governing board made up of representatives from local jurisdictions surrounding Lake Tahoe.

Second, it has the ability to set public policy, thereby setting environmental standards others must follow.

Third, it took an act of Congress to form.

Fourth, it facilitates grants that will assist in economic and environmental development and protection.

Fifth, it straddles two states with varying degrees of environmental laws and standards.

Of all the agencies and environmental watchdogs in tourism-based, environmentally sensitive areas in the nation, only one comes close to the TRPA.

The Columbia River Gorge Commission was authorized by the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act. It was created the following year through a bistate compact between Oregon and Washington. Sound familiar?

The commission was established to develop and enforce policies and programs that protect and enhance the scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources of the 300,000-acre gorge area. The only national scenic area in the United States stretches from the Portland-Vancouver Metropolitan area 85 miles east to the Deschutes River.

It receives 2 million visitors a year.

The gorge is managed by eight full-time staffers, and the commission board consisting of representatives from the two states, the U.S. Forest Service and the surrounding counties. They include: Klickitat, Wasco, Skamania, Clark, Hood River and Multnomah counties.

The commission partners with a number of entities to implement a regional management plan, including the states of Oregon and Washington, the Forest Service, four treaty Indian tribes and three counties in each of the two states.

The plan is now in the process of being updated. Planners expect to have it completed between six months to a year from now.

When Forest Service planner Steve Grichel started revising the plan with gorge staff planner Allen Bell, the two looked to one place for guidance — Lake Tahoe.

“We look to Tahoe to get our minds going in some direction,” Grichel said.

And the gorge commission takes as much heat as TRPA.

“Heavy criticism? You could be a reporter up here,” Grichel said.

The Forest Service, working with the gorge commission, is tackling its plan piece by piece, voting on it one segment at a time.

The commission also fields appeals on land use decisions made by a county, the gorge commission’s executive director or another party that poses a challenge.

This might be all the public and commission may be able to handle, Grichel implied.

“We tried to find out what was working and what wasn’t,” he said of the research that went into the working draft. The management plan was first adopted in 1991.”

Coming as no surprise, the scenic standards have been the most controversial of the topics. Painting or repainting homes in the scenic area must gain agency approval.

“People don’t like to be told to submit color samples,” he said.

The scenic standards aren’t the only points of controversy. There’s a section Grichel said the planners and 13 commissioners will have to wrestle with in defining. The agency expects a fight in adopting a minimum visibility standard that may dictate how many trees can be cut down between homes and the river.

“One of the (challenges) we face is gaining river access,” gorge staff planner Allen Bell said.

From Ebey’s Landing in Washington to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, agencies that serve to protect the natural resources of environmentally sensitive lands have one common denominator — trees have become a commodity.

Many areas such as Vail and Aspen in Colorado, and Jackson, Wyo., establish recommendations through their respective primary land managers — most often the Forest Service.

Tree cutting is a key issue, requiring approval by the federal agency or the local jurisdiction such as the county or city.

The flight into the rural areas such as Aspen have wreaked havoc on the local jurisdictions trying to do land planning. In Aspen, the size of homes has increased substantially.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, you see these homes that are just mind-bending. The trend is now homes at 20,000-square-feet,” Aspen city planner Chris Bendon said.

Like the TRPA, the city has been enforcing a restriction that requires a permit for cutting and replacing trees larger than 6 inches in diameter.

Unlike its sister to the south, Vail city officials see the town as already built out.

In the popular hot spot of Jackson, City Manager Bob McLaurin said the city has handled its growth without much intervention from outside agencies or public dissent.

While Mammoth Lakes may have its share of overdevelopment concerns, the resort town’s location about 200 miles south of Lake Tahoe requires local government and its citizens to report to only one state.

“There’s not another TRPA. I think part of the reason is the bistate distinction,” Mammoth Lakes senior planner Bill Taylor said.

Mammoth Lakes has the same 6-inch tree cutting requirement, primarily for public safety and tree health.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota is regulated through the Forest Service, but officials there say the area is so remote that growth issues have not played a part in policy change and dissent.

First, the only two households set up in the pristine area no longer exist.

Second, Mother Nature has played a larger role in giving the Superior National Forest challenges in protecting the ecological integrity of the area. Four years ago on the Fourth of July, a “dericho” deemed a 1,000-year wind storm by meteorologists, blew down 400,000 acres of trees. Lake Superior received 8 inches of rain in one day. To this day, the Forest Service is still cleaning up trying to reduce the fuel hazard for wildland fires.

The National Park Service oversees 387 areas in America. From Mount Denali in Alaska to the Florida Everglades, sensitive land containing historic monuments, battlefields, cemeteries, lake shores and other areas are protected by the park service.

Each park contains a General Management Plan that provides guidelines on building on the land, said Holly Bundock, spokeswoman for the National Park Service in Oakland. The GMP is usually decided by community members around the land. The park service encourages building to occur outside the designated land.

The process for land to become a national park begins at the grass roots level. Community members ask their congressional representative to ask the park service to conduct a study on a piece of land, Bundock said.

Once a study is completed and if it states there is a historic or educational value to the land, a bill is introduced in Congress.

If it passes, the land becomes federally protected.

Efforts were made to make Lake Tahoe a national park. Bundock said the crusade generated the most interest in the 1930s when Bill Mott, a park service employee, wanted the designation. Bundock believes the effort was halted by World War II.

The national parks present their own set of rules and guidelines — protecting and preserving a designated area through the National Park Service based at the nation’s capital.

Gretchen Luxenberg, the parks service liaison to the trust board of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve at Whitby Island, Wash., helps manage the cultural resources of the 400-acre region near Seattle.

Luxenberg said there are limited similarities between her board, of which she’s a member, and the TRPA. Primarily, the trust board makes recommendations. It does not set policy.

“We might fit the bill. We don’t have any power,” she said of the comparison.

When told of TRPA’s quandary in dealing with local dissent, she found a definite difference.

“Usually people come to the trust board complaining we’re not doing enough,” she said of the hard-line environmental groups that sue the counties under the basis of the Growth Management Act.

The commission was born in 1972 by voter initiative to protect California’s 1,100-mile coastline. Four years later it was made permanent by the California Coastal Act, but it took a financial and staffing hit when Gov. Gray Davis signed the California budget Aug. 2.

Agriculture, wetlands, public views, beach access, water quality and wildlife protection are some of the areas the commission has authority over. Houses to hotels to sewer plants fall under the broad topic of development that is regulated by the commission.

The commission works with city and county governments that have land along the Pacific Ocean. This partnership works primarily through Local Coastal Programs. Fifteen counties and 59 cities have real estate along the coast.

There are 126 LCP segments which divide the coast. Larger counties such as Humboldt, Del Norte and San Luis Obispo have more than one LCP.

Malibu recently left the 36 uncertified segments, according to Sarah Christie, legislative director for the commission. A city or county that applies for a LCP permit must adopt the general principles of the California Coastal Act but can have different building requirements from its neighbor, Christie said.

“Every jurisdiction is different,” she said. “What works in one area won’t work for the others. Building height, building setback, building appearances and facades, lighting, landscape, water use, type of material used on driveways…. There’s no limit to the amount of specificity a local government can apply through their LCP.”

Officials discover noncompliance usually through complaints. Failure to comply with regulations results in fines and prosecution.

“We go to court with regularity,” Christie said. “I would hazard a guess we are more in court than any other state agency.”

For the 36 uncertified areas, the commission handles each building request, which amounts to more than 1,000 per year.

The commission has authority over land that varies in width from several hundred feet in urbanized areas up to five miles in rural areas, officials said. Ocean coverage spans three miles offshore.

The San Francisco Bay is not in the commission’s jurisdiction and is under the authority of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

The commission has 16 members, 12 of whom can vote. The governor, Senate Rules Committee and speaker of the Assembly pick four members each. The four non-voting members are chosen by the Trade and Commerce Agency, Resources Agency, State Lands Commission and the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

The council is comprised of eight governors and two Canadian Premiers of Ontario and Quebec who are concerned with the economic and environmental health of the Great Lakes.

In 1984, Rudy Perpich, then governor of Minnesota, wanted to improve the vitality of the lakes’ region, known as the “rust belt.” Under Perpich’s wish to clean the rust belt, the council was born.

Projects have centered on his desires. The Great Lakes contain one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. Industry in the region manufactures 60 percent of the nation’s steel and 60 percent of automobiles made in North America.

Past objectives include creating a skill level standard for industrial workers, instituting water quality standards, establishing a pollution prevention model for the lithographic printing industry and voluntary cleanup and restoration of contaminated areas in the region.

The water quality issue was readdressed in 2001 under the Great Lakes Charter Annex. Among other things, the annex allowed the council to arrange new guidelines for businesses, such as bottled water companies taking water out of the Great Lakes.

Ballast water is also being researched. Ballast water, which sits in a cargo ship’s hull, helps stabilize vessels but was found to bring foreign sea organisms into the fresh water lakes.

Each member pays $30,000 yearly for dues and support. The council also applies for state and federal grants, and recently received $450,000 from the Mott Foundation supporting a water management initiative.

The governors meet once a year to discuss policy. Representatives for the leaders meet about once a month to address specific projects.

Three groups — advisory, observers and resource — give their opinion for certain projects.

The advisory group consists of about 25 organizations representing areas from industry to environmental.

Canadian consultants, money providers and the International Joint Commission are some members of the observers group.

The resource group is comprised of representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency, Environment Canada, Army Corps of Engineers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The frequency of meetings allows group members to track the progress of the council without slowing the efficiency of the meetings.

The Great Lakes Protection Fund provides money while the Great Lakes Commission conducts research for the council.

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