SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Combining science with collaboration will be key to understanding and managing Lake Tahoe’s natural environment, which officials said Tuesday is being challenged by drought, invasive species, the threat of catastrophic wildfire and climate change.
In his Lake Tahoe Summit keynote speech, California Gov. Jerry Brown noted efforts to protect the environment take “science, management, technology and learning how to live with nature.” Sometimes there are setbacks, he said, but people have to push forward.
“We are engaged in a great undertaking, working together, living with nature and living, hopefully, in a way where we come together, overcome our differences and see clearly, and we care enough to get it done,” Brown said.
Catastrophic wildfires, invasive species and drought were among the key topics of discussion at the 18th annual Lake Tahoe Summit, held at the Valhalla Estate in the South Shore. The meeting brought unusual bipartisan consensus among federal lawmakers on at least one aspect of the threats to the Tahoe basin — that more logging should play a role in reducing the wildfire danger.
Those in attendance said decades of suppressing wildfires, no matter how remote, has left many forests too thick with trees, leading to disease and stoking high-intensity wildfires.
“The policy of the last 30 years has failed and failed miserably,” said Republican Rep. Tom McClintock of California, who told more than 300 participants that revenue from logging could help fund forest improvements.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who convened the annual summit, agreed in a later interview that there are too many regulations preventing the removal of dead, dying and overcrowded trees before and after wildfires strike. She recalled that what were grassy alpine meadows when she first visited the lake more than 70 years ago are now dense forests.
Feinstein and the other California and Nevada senators are pushing the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, legislation which would provide an additional $415 million in federal money to fight invasive species, address the fire danger and reduce erosion, which clouds a lake famed for its clarity.
“As you might guess, we face in uphill battle to get the bill passed,” Feinstein said during her speech. “The federal budget isn’t what it used to be. But that brings me to my final point: the public-private partnership is more important than ever.”
Meanwhile, federal and state officials from both states and both political parties signed a proclamation at the summit supporting timber reduction and wildfire prevention efforts near Lake Tahoe. Brown and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, along with U.S. Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller of Nevada, and Barbara Boxer of California signed the proclamation, as did U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada. Several said the region learned lessons in fire prevention after a wind-driven wildfire destroyed more than 250 homes near the south shore of Lake Tahoe in 2007.
Feinstein listed a variety of accomplishments in the region, such as improvements in water clarity, the installation of erosion control measures and efforts to prevent wildfires. Among other achievements, about 20,000 acres of wildlife habitat has been restored since 2000, and dozens of acres at the bottom of Lake Tahoe have been treated for invasive Asian clams.
“Our public-private partnership has made a difference,” she said.
Sandoval used the example of the grounded Thunderbird to discuss the impacts of drought in the region. The Thunderbird, an old wooden speedboat once owned by George Whittell, is stuck in its boathouse as a result of damaged engines and low water levels. Sandoval, recently elected chairman of the Western Governors’ Association, said meetings looking at the drought’s impacts on tourism, agriculture, energy are planned over the course of his chairmanship. Forums will also be held on water availability and urban water planning. The results from the meetings will be presented to Western governors at a 2015 convention in Lake Tahoe.
“The prolonged drought conditions that California and Nevada face highlight the interconnected nature of our natural resources, our land and our economy,” he said. “It’s critical that we work collectively to address the drought’s impacts and take measures to increase our ability to adapt both to the natural resource challenges we face in the near and long term.”
In another dry year, many people are looking into the impacts of wildfires, which McClintock said is “the greatest natural threat facing Lake Tahoe.”
Wildfires have devastated the area in the past several years, he said, but removing excess timber from the surrounding forests would help prevent some of the damage.
“This ought to be self-evident: There’s no greater threat to the environment and economy in the Tahoe basin than a catastrophic forest fire,” McClintock said, “and our efforts ought to be prioritized to place this at the very top of the list of policy changes.”
The politicians spent quite a bit of time acknowledging the efforts of people involved with persevering Lake Tahoe and its surrounding environment.
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said what brings everyone out to the summit is the spirit that “we are all in this together” and that the summit is a celebration of overcoming differences.
“We rise and fall together,” Newsom said. “We’re all going to experience the future. The question is, what kind of future is it going to look like.”
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, a Democrat from California, was not among the proclamation signers. He said in an interview that logging can play a role, although it is not the panacea.
He faulted Republican leaders in the U.S. House for blocking a proposal that would protect federal money intended for general forest management so that it would not be diverted for firefighting.
Tuesday’s summit was held at the Tallac Historic Site, once a summer retreat for wealthy San Francisco Bay Area families and now a popular area of beaches, bicycle trails and publicly accessible estates administered by the U.S. Forest Service.
With Tahoe behind him, Sandoval, a Republican, told the audience how three years of drought had affected the lake. Lower water levels mean tour boats cannot operate and the shoreline has receded, rendering some docks useless.
The lake’s water level is so low this year that a paddle wheel tour boat ran aground on a sandbar Aug. 4. In addition, the drought puts stress on healthy trees, making them more susceptible to insects, disease and fires, he said.
Participants said conditions have improved around the lake since the summits began, largely because of what Feinstein said was $1.7 billion in federal, state, local and private spending.
When the summits began in 1997, researchers found they could peer 64 feet into the lake, Feinstein said. Now, thanks to programs to control erosion and fire soot, researchers can see to a depth of about 75 feet.
Scientists and lake advocates once thought the key to keeping the lake healthy was to limit development around it, said Tahoe Environmental Research Center Director Geoff Schladow.
“We now know it’s not that simple,” he said.
Climate change and increases in wildfires and invasive species like quagga mussels and Asian clams are as big a challenge, he said.
Griffin Rogers is a reporter for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication of The Union.