TRPA a steward of the lake locally and internationally
Because the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency operates under such intense scrutiny from environmentalists, local businesses, residents and politicians, it is sometimes difficult to remember that it is the Tahoe Basin’s watchdog agency, not the other way around.
So it may come as refreshing news to some that the agency is not only setting an example of what to do and how to do it with watershed management in North America, but has also garnered attention globally as a model for ideas and implementation.
TRPA’s efforts for international outreach can be traced directly to the Tahoe Baikal Institute, a non-profit that not only helps teach guardians of the Siberian lake how to be proper custodians, but also enables exchanges to occur between the two nations in pursuit of learning and environmental protection.
And, according to TRPA staff, it is in the agency’s best interest to study a lake like Baikal, which is the largest freshwater lake on earth, containing more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water and more than 90 percent of Russia’s surface water. (To put it in perspective Lake Baikal is 20 million years old, to Tahoe’s 2 million, is three times deeper than Tahoe and 60 times larger in surface area.)
“Yes, Baikal does dwarf Tahoe,” said TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan. “It is about 400 miles long and 80 miles wide. It’s just, literally, breathtakingly big.”
Baikal is surrounded by towns and industry, with hardly any residential/tourism development, but has the same potential for ski resort development, trail construction and conservation as the Tahoe basin of yesteryear.
“A paper plant is a threat to the lake,” said Bryan von Lossberg, executive director of the Tahoe Baikal Institute. “But there are vast stretches of no development, no industry.
“From an eco-tourism standpoint, there’s a group called the great Baikal Trail, our key partner, they are essentially trying to model the Tahoe Rim Trail process at Baikal.”
The Tahoe Baikal Institute was established in 1990 at both lakes, as well as to protect “other significant and threatened natural areas around the world,” the institute’s mission states.
“This preservation is realized through environmental education programs, research, and international exchanges of students, scholars, and practitioners in science, policy, economics and other related disciplines.”
The institute and its cooperative effort with TRPA has also opened doors for other international community representatives to join the agency and share information.
“The TRPA has helped us in two ways,” von Lossberg said. “One, they get together with groups for the summer environmental exchange, and they find a way to show (Russians) how TRPA works in the basin and the challenges they face.”
One of the challenges the agency does not face is garnering international curiosity.
“We’ve had groups in from Eastern Europe, Tajikistan, Japan and Korea over the last several months,” spokeswoman Regan said. “We’ve had legislators over the last 18 months look to us for models of governance and commitment to collaboration because working every day, we get into many challenges.
“When visitors from around the world really herald our efforts, it renews our enthusiasm – it is very gratifying. It’s great to hear them complimenting how we work at Tahoe.”
And while TRPA doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with those who monitor it closely, many agree that the exchange program and bringing in those from other countries to learn preservation methods is an invaluable service the agency provides to the international community.
“No agency is perfect,” said Sierra Club chair Michael Donahoe. “But with outreach and collaboration to (other) countries, TRPA is up there.
“Every chance we get to share efforts here (is) mutually beneficial.”
Last week, a group of Russians returned to TRPA headquarters to piece together how to make Baikal more of a tourist destination. Their knowledge, according to TRPA staff, “continues to grow.”
“The group that was just here, was very special,” Tahoe Baikal Institute’s von Lossberg said. “This group is the Buryat – the local indigenous group at Baikal. They’ve had a long relationship with the Washoe here, and the two groups met.”
Indeed, one TRPA staff member said the co-operation between groups and nations is “beyond rewarding.”
“They’re interested in how to preserve their resource and build their economy,” Regan said. “It’s always about process, but helping someone strike a balance, it’s a very satisfying part of our job.”