Guest View: Sovereigns and environmentalism collide
Few examples of a collision of sovereigns and the resultant interplay of levels of government in the search for environmental protection exist in a more pure form than the Lake Tahoe Basin.
The environmental struggle seriously surfaced after World War II, when the local sovereign governments, cities and counties in the basin responded too generously to the political pressure of developers and exhibited little or no regard for the environmental damage to fragile Lake Tahoe that their decisions on land use were causing. In that era throughout the nation, not just in the Lake Tahoe Basin, such concerns were expressed, if at all, in a muted fashion.
In the 1950s, the serious decline in the clarity of the lake – stemming from problems such as the development of the Keys and the seeping of sewage into the lake by many of the septic tanks in the basin – began to be recognized.
Efforts to impose environmental restrictions on local governments, whose policies were the immediate cause of those problems, were met with such resistance that little was accomplished. Lake Tahoe Basin solutions to environmental problems have only been successful when the political entities involved recognized the need for all to participate in the effort to seek an equitable environmental solution.
Such consciousness took a damnably long time to occur. But in 1957, the movement toward environmental protection in the basin finally began. It happened when a number of concerned lakeside landowners who, worried about the obvious decline in the clarity of the lake and the uncontrolled growth occurring in the basin, gathered together and formed the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
The league demonstrated a powerful ability to focus political support for the movement to protect Lake Tahoe. They persuasively argued that Lake Tahoe was such a precious natural resource that its care could not be left to the political decisions of the local governments surrounding the lake.
Their efforts resulted in the historical and difficult decision in 1969 by the Republican governors of California and Nevada, Ronald Reagan and Paul Laxalt, to propose a federal compact that would remove all authority for land-use planning from the local governments in the basin and, instead, that authority would be vested in the federally created Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Republican President Nixon signed the compact. That was a historical restriction on private-property rights, and it was, surprisingly, conceived and executed by Republican officials, not Democratic tree-huggers!
Since the creation of TRPA, the environmental movement within the Lake Tahoe Basin has accelerated with the active participation of the Sierra Club, joined by the Sierra Forest Legacy and the Sierra Nevada Alliance. Their combined capacity to influence environmental decisions in the basin has grown extraordinarily.
The Governing Board of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has 15 members. Seven each are from California and Nevada, and the 15th is a nonvoting presidential appointee. Membership consists of locally elected members and those appointed by the respective state governments. I have served some 15 years as the appointee of the California State Senate. It is a unique regulatory body in many ways, not the least being that we are not paid a salary, nor do we receive any medical or retirement benefits. We are all volunteers. The wisdom of those who sought a solution to the controversy as to whom would be responsible for regulating development in the basin was reflected in the prominent number of locally elected members on the Governing Board, who, in turn, were balanced by a similar number of appointees of the two state governments. The local representatives assure that local needs are considered along with the environmental decisions. Whereas, the state appointees, though cognizant of the needs of the local communities, concentrate on protecting the lake and its environs. The sensitive combination of elected local officials and state-appointed out-of-basin members has resulted in the 40 years of TRPA’s existence in successfully preventing further decline in the clarity of the lake and protecting the environment surrounding the lake. Not all our solutions have been wise. Some mistakes have been made. But the mistakes occurred – not from any selfish motivations, but from a failure to fully understand the fragility of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding terrain.
Too often, it seems to me, in order to accomplish major environmental controls such as TRPA, one must be facing an imminent disaster. We are not much into preventive medicine as we contemplate environmental sickness. The Angora fire demonstrates this weakness in our regulatory system. Though the huge disaster to the environment that Angora threatened fortunately did not occur, the event has resulted in the TRPA, local governments, the state government and the federal government joining together in a commendable effort to prevent the environmental disaster that a catastrophic fire in the basin clearly would entail.
Poll after poll these days informs that people living in the Tahoe Basin now deeply care about the problems of air pollution, the clarity of their beautiful lake, the maintenance of its forests, the protection of species … the list goes on and on.
That, I believe, is the prime reason that we now can address at all levels of government environmental solutions that 30 or 40 years ago would have been impossible to consider. We will keep Tahoe blue.
– Jerome Waldie is a former U.S. congressman, a Placerville resident and a member of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency Governing Board.