It’s not every day the President, Vice President, three Cabinet secretaries, their deputies, an agency head, two governors, nine members of Congress and numerous other elected state officials all gather under one roof. The declining health of the Lake Tahoe Basin was the proclaimed reason for the gathering of these powers—dubbed the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum. Last weekend’s Forum has put Lake Tahoe in the media spotlight since late May. Three workshops on water quality, forest health and transportation supposedly helped the Administration gather local opinion to be relayed to the President at the Forum. Along with providing a venue to tell Clinton about all of the Basin’s problems, organizers anticipated a pledge of $300 million from the federal government. With months of hype and regional media coverage, the President’s announcement on Saturday was anticlimactic. He encouraged continued cooperation between various groups via a meaningless executive order and promised only $50 million—an increase of $26 million over current funding. Now residents of Nevada and California are left asking, why all the hoopla? Following is a look at what was promised and possible other motives behind this event.
The "Executive Order"
In an effort to streamline government, Clinton created a super agency—the Tahoe Federal Interagency Partnership—to insure cooperation between the various governmental agencies in the Basin. Perhaps a nice gesture, but in reality it is just one more layer of government locals will have to deal with. Several improvement districts, five counties, two states and at least five federal agencies share jurisdiction over the Basin. In an effort to help people to negotiate through this bureaucratic nightmare, the federal government created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in 1971. The TRPA is supposed to bring all of these interests together. Apparently the federal government does not think the TRPA does enough, so Clinton created yet another layer with this partnership. But complaints about the current layers of red tape were voiced at the workshops. Heavenly Ski Resort managers know the delays and agency overlapping first hand. It took seven years to get approval from all of the concerned agencies for an improvement project slated to decrease traffic, lowering harmful car emissions. If all projects take this long (or longer with this new Partnership) to get approved, the lake is in big trouble. The President may be causing more problems than he is solving with this executive order.
The TRPA has a $906 million list of environmental projects that need to be undertaken in the next 10 years. With this figure in mind, California pledged $274.6 million, Nevada pledged $82 million, private parties $152.5 million and local governments $100.9 million. The TRPA hoped the federal government would pledge the reminder $296.8 million. Consequently, many people were disappointed with only $50 million, specifically California Gov. Pete Wilson. "What we have is a two year response to a 10-year problem," said Doug Wheeler, Wilson’s resources secretary.
White House aides didn’t have a response to these criticisms. They vaguely discussed more money will be committed in the future. "Are we in a position right now then to say with exact decimal points and dollars and cents beyond these next two years? No, but we are in a position to say that this commitment is real and is going to be lasting to this region," said Katie McGinty, chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality. Of course Clinton’s promises of commitment and funding a 10-year plan step-by-step are only good while he is in office. The federal money will be used for specific projects designated by Clinton, such as improving erosion control, increasing the use of controlled burns and replacing diesel gas postal trucks with natural gas.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Clinton’s commitment was more than he had hoped for. What else could he say, he was the reason Clinton came at all—a point both Clinton and Gore mentioned several times. After all, Reid is up for re-election in 1998, and this is a perfect event to gain voter support. And Reid is not the only one playing the political game. Why was Gore the only one to visit the California side of the lake? Perhaps because he, not Clinton, needs California’s support to win the 2000 presidential election.
"I want to be able to go around the country and say to people, ‘Don’t tell me we can’t work together to solve our problems. I’ve seen it at Lake Tahoe,’" said Clinton in his public address. The apparent cooperation of all concerned parties in the Basin was the most played-up issue at the Forum. Environmental groups, business owners and private citizens were represented on the panel of people who addressed Clinton—all declaring how wonderful everything is working. But jet skiers, cattle farmers and private property owners have a different opinion. Since 1972 the TRPA has been involved in 160 lawsuits—three of them are private property disputes currently pending. Boaters and jet skiers held a protest during the Forum, even though the Vice President did not see it. Cattle farming interests are battling environmentalists who say grazing is destroying sensitive lands—most likely the environmentalists will win.
Although many interests groups are working together in an unprecedented manner, Clinton’s claim that Lake Tahoe’s cooperation can be a model for the nation ignores some serious concerns and other interests of Basin citizens.
The question still remains, why all the hoopla? The TRPA has been working on environmental improvement projects for 10 years. The major problems have long been identified. The agency has established thresholds in several areas like air and water quality, forest health, wetlands restoration, etc. Projects have been proposed to meet these thresholds. According to the TRPA, all that is needed is money, and lots of it, to implement the needed projects. But that is not what came out of the Forum. Granted, the Forum did put some pressure on the state and local governments to commit large amounts of money to the Basin, although the respective legislatures still have to approve these commitments. The federal government may well be doubling up on work that the agency is already doing. Citizens and the local media appear to recognize this Forum was not all it promised to be. The lake is not going to turn blue over-night just because the President paid a visit.
Erica Olsen is a research analyst.