TRPA chief leaves memories, void |

TRPA chief leaves memories, void

When Jim Baetge was growing up in Bishop, he used to visit Lake Tahoe. He thought the brilliantly blue lake was wonderful.

Ever since it has been a part of his life, whether he was working for the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, California Department of Transportation or state Water Resources Control Board. And it goes without saying that he’s been involved in Tahoe issues over the last five years. To Baetge, however, it also goes without saying that Tahoe still will be a part of his life, even after he leaves his position as executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a post he has held since 1994.

“When I was growing up, I thought Tahoe was an exceptionally wonderful place to go, and I never got away from it,” Baetge said. “Tahoe will always be in my life. Obviously, I have a lot of strong feelings for what ought to happen here.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get rid of my cabin up here; I love it so much.”

Baetge’s tenure as TRPA’s chief is longer than any of his predecessors.

In February, however, he had surgery to remove a kidney and, with the many demands of the position, has been unable to fully recover.

Saying if he couldn’t “do it 100 percent,” he wasn’t the right person for the job, Baetge announced last month that Jan. 7, 2000 would be his last day.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a big loss for the agency,” said Jerry Wells, deputy director of TRPA, Tahoe’s bistate regulatory authority. “The good news is if there ever was a time for Jim to leave, this probably isn’t a bad one. The programs are in place; everything we do is progressing all the time. I don’t see it as being overly disruptive, but obviously it will be a loss for the basin to lose his expertise and vision.”

Since Baetge came to TRPA, the agency has gained a lot of support for its mission, from federal and state governments and from residents of Tahoe. Its yearly budgets – one-third of which comes from Nevada, two-thirds from California – have grown. A two-year debate over banning certain types of watercraft from the lake has gone on, and the agency recently has received information showing the prohibition has resulted in as much as 90 percent reduction in gasoline compounds in the lake. The president and vice president visited Tahoe, bringing national attention to the fight to save the lake’s declining clarity.

And Baetge’s biggest achievement, he and others believe, is a document called the Environmental Improvement Program. It is a dynamic work developed by TRPA that lays out what needs to be done, how fast and for how much money in order to meet the agency’s objectives.

Nearly everyone, from the federal government to the residents of the basin, has bought into what the EIP calls for. The document has focused the efforts at Tahoe, joining all levels of government, historically competing universities and – with some exceptions – most of the people who live at or visit Tahoe. California, Nevada, Congress and Tahoe officials all are trying to find ways to come up with the $900 million needed to implement the EIP.

“I think Jim has had a very significant and positive impact,” said Steve Teshara, executive director of the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance and co-chair of the Lake Tahoe Transportation and Water Quality Coalition, a group of basin organizations that are involved in the region’s environmental issues. “I appreciate the fact that he has been extremely dedicated and often passionate about what he thinks we need to do at Lake Tahoe to get the job done.

“I have great respect for Jim. I think it will be a great loss.”

Others agree.

“Under Jim’s leadership, I think TRPA and the basin, from an environmental perspective, have taken major strides forward,” said Harold Singer, executive director of the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, an agency with a close working relationship with TRPA. “I think he will be sorely missed by the community.”

Dennis Machida, executive director of the California Tahoe Conservancy, another agency working close with TRPA, said what impressed him the most wasn’t so much the physical, visible accomplishments but the way Baetge “really appealed to the spirit of hope and optimism for the future of the basin.”

“I think he’s made a difference, and the difference will continue because a lot of people are supportive of his vision,” Machida said.

Baetge, now 62, worked for Caltrans in the 1960s and 1970s, which included a stint as the acting executive director of California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in the late 1970s, a no-longer-existant agency separate from TRPA but one addressing many of the same issues.

Baetge was involved in Tahoe issues then and also during five years as executive director of the California State Water Resources Control Board. He retired from there in 1991, not knowing for sure what he would do in the future. And then the opportunity for the TRPA position came along.

He thought it was ideal. Beating out 133 other applicants, Baetge took the job in May 1994.

The position is one that takes long hours and, as Baetge says, it’s one you can’t get away from even when you go home. His annual salary, recently raised by the board, is $85,000.

“It’s a rewarding job,” Baetge said. “Your job is continually trying to develop win-win solutions with a lot of players. It’s rewarding, but it takes a lot of energy.”

Besides resting and getting his energy back, Baetge has no immediate plans for the future. He and his wife Diane have a house in Sacramento and a cabin at Tahoe, which he has no plans to get rid of. They have a son and daughter, two grandchildren and another grandchild on the way.

“I don’t know what I’ll do now. I kind of did this same thing when I left the water board. I’ll never retire; I don’t use that word. I’ll be back doing something once my energy pops up again,” he said. “One of the things I do want to do is walk that whole Tahoe Rim Trail. That’s something I want to do this spring, walk it one piece at a time. I think that would be a great experience.”

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