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Tahoe economy depends on environment

Patrick McCartney

As Lake Tahoe goes, so goes the Tahoe Basin economy.

That’s the hard-fought lesson the Tahoe business community has learned over the last 30 years, as the Lake Tahoe environment has absorbed one blow after another.

Through the years, business leaders have come to understand what needs to be done to restore the basin’s environment, and in turn the area’s appeal to visitors.



By doing so, the basin’s diverse interests have forged alliances that make Lake Tahoe a model for the nation in how economic and environmental goals can go hand in hand.

“It’s like the heart and lungs,” observes Duane Wallace, the executive director of the South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce. “The heart of our economy is the lake, and the lungs are the fresh flow of tourist dollars that keep coming to our community. You can’t separate one from the other.”



On Saturday at the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum, President Clinton will salute the partnerships that were hammered out through decades of conflict, collaboration and cooperation.

The Tahoe tourist economy is as fragile as the basin’s Alpine environment. Most businesses rely on two peak seasons – summer vacations and winter ski trips – for the bulk of their revenues, then hunker down to survive through the two “shoulder” seasons of spring and fall.

But, as residents of the Tahoe Basin grew alarmed at the deterioration of Lake Tahoe’s famed clarity in the 1960s, and supported the creation of tough regulations to halt runaway development, life became even tougher for the basin’s business community.

New commercial projects and residential subdivisions were halted, as the bistate environmental agency, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, put the brakes to building in the basin’s disappearing wetlands.

In just the last year, however, the agency and community planning teams have finally completed the task of rewriting most of the basin’s community plans. With their adoption, new commercial development will begin, but this time tied to an overall plan that protects the environment.

And, finished with the job of redirecting the basin’s future, the TRPA now supports a series of ambitious redevelopment projects that are aimed at revitalizing the basin’s economy by reducing urban clutter and providing environmental benefits.

No one was hurt more by the changing rules than private land owners, who had bought properties in areas no longer considered buildable. The Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council, which represents hundreds of such owners, is still pursuing legal claims for greater compensation for their losses.

But the era of great wars in the basin is over, says Mary Gilanfarr, the group’s executive director.

“There always should be differences,” Gilanfarr said, referring to the basin’s history of conflict. “But we want to build this model of collaboration, to be able to sit down and talk about anything and everything.”

Gilanfarr said she prefers the term “collaboration” to “consensus” in describing the shared understanding that private property owners, business interests and environmentalists have developed.

“We like collaboration and open dialogue,” she said. “Consensus suggests that we’ve all hugged and kissed and settled all our differences. But if that were true, we wouldn’t need the help of the federal government.”

Felicia Marcus, the regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said she has never encountered a place like Lake Tahoe, where competing interests have put aside their differences to focus on their shared goals.

“I’ve never seen something like this,” Marcus said. “When I have talked to people in the basin, I can’t tell which community they came from, whether they are an environmentalist or a business owner. What has impressed me are the mature and evolved set of relationships among the partners.”


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