Lake Tahoe Summit: 25 Years of Preserving Lake Tahoe for Future Generations

In the late 1990s, clarity was declining, and neglected forests posed a profound fire threat. Bi-partisan officials knew that they needed to come together to protect Lake Tahoe.

By California State Archives

High in the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe is one of the world’s largest, deepest, and clearest mountain lakes. For thousands of years, the Washoe Tribe demonstrated a deep respect for the fragile environment, but by the 1990s, tourism and urbanization had a significant impact. 

Lake Tahoe Clear Cutting Historic Image (circa 1850-1900) by U.S. Forest ServiceCalifornia State Archives

The lake’s famous clarity and fragile ecosystems were severely degraded by urbanization. Complicated jurisdictional boundaries throughout the region added an extra challenge to restoration goals. 

Aerial of Lake Tahoe Upper Truckee River Sediment Plume (2008) by California Tahoe ConservancyCalifornia State Archives

In the late 1990s, clarity was declining, urban centers were decaying, and neglected forests posed a profound fire threat. California Senator Dianne Feinstein called it a time of “environmental emergency.” 

Newspaper clipping, "A day to remember" from Tahoe Daily Tribune/North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. (1997) by Tahoe Daily TribuneCalifornia State Archives

On June 24, 1996, U.S. Senator Harry Reid wrote President Clinton “to request that you convene a federal conference to consider the serious challenges that face Lake Tahoe, to bring the crisis confronting the lake and surrounding basin to the nation’s attention.” Clinton agreed.

Senator Harry Reid speaks at 18th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit (2014) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

Nevada Senator Harry Reid remarked, “The clarity was disappearing…I said we need a presidential summit.”  That idea sparked the first Lake Tahoe Summit in 1997. President Clinton said to Reid, “…thanks to the person who thought this idea up and got my commitment months ago.” 

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore Visit to Lake Tahoe (1997) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

“One of the reasons that I wanted to come here was to show the nation that there is a place where environmentalists and business people and ordinary citizens…[are] working together in common cause,” Clinton said before signing the “Presidential Deliverables" executive order. 

At the first Lake Tahoe Summit in July 1997, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore pledged to boost by millions the money going to restore Tahoe’s troubled environment.  

Senator Dianne Feinstein speaks at the 12th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit (2008) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

Senator Feinstein’s commitment to Lake Tahoe goes back to her youth as a camper at Camp Talawanda. After the first Summit, she united public and private sectors to save Lake Tahoe. In 2000, she cosponsored the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, a 10-year, $900 million cleanup effort.

Senator Dean Heller Speaking at Lake Tahoe Summit (2018) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

In 2016, Senator Feinstein worked with Senators Dean Heller, Harry Reid, and Barbara Boxer to extend the Act another 10 years, authorizing an additional $415 million to combat invasive species, improve water clarity, reduce the threat of wildfires, and restore the environment.

Lakeside Bike Trail, North Lake Tahoe (2013) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

The Environmental Improvement Program (EIP) has implemented hundreds of projects to improve Lake Tahoe’s water quality, make forests healthier, clean the air, and enhance all aspects of the environment and local communities. 

Marine Taxonomic Services (2021) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

Water Quality

Work is being done to treat stormwater runoff and restore natural filters like meadows and wetlands, providing  wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Thanks to the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, partners are working to prevent and control the spread of aquatic invasive species.

Workers in a forest clearing in Tahoe (2018) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

Forest Health

The threat of catastrophic wildfire looms over Lake Tahoe with many neighboring communities suffering from destructive blazes. The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team (TFFT) leads public education campaigns to teach residents how to prevent as well as prepare for wildfire.  

Forest Health

Since the 2007 Angora Fire, the TFFT has completed 65,000 acres of treatment to thin overstocked forests, reducing hazardous fuels and proactively managing forests to improve ecosystem resilience to withstand the increasing threats of drought and other extreme weather events. 

Kayakers at Chimney Beach, LTWT, 2020, From the collection of: California State Archives
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Lakeside Bike Trail, North Lake Tahoe, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 2013, From the collection of: California State Archives
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Group of Skiers in Tahoe, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, 2021, From the collection of: California State Archives
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Kayaker on East Shore, LTWT, 2020, From the collection of: California State Archives
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Sustainable Recreation and Transportation: While outdoor recreation is a major driver of Lake Tahoe’s $5 billion annual economy, overcrowding can degrade natural areas, create heavy traffic, and lessen the visitor experience. With roughly 15 million people visiting per year, sustainable recreation is a priority.

Tahoe Area Regional Transit in front of Squaw Valley, California (2020) by Placer CountyCalifornia State Archives

Sustainable Recreation and Transportation

The goal of Lake Tahoe’s sustainable transportation program is to improve air quality and outdoor experiences for visitors and residents while protecting natural resources, increase the use of alternative modes of transportation, and decrease reliance on private automobiles.

U.C. Davis research team measures Lake Tahoe water quality. (2007) by U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research CenterCalifornia State Archives

Science, Stewardship, and Accountability

Lake Tahoe faces an uncertain future with the effects of climate change. Investing in science and research to understand changing lake dynamics and the basin’s ecosystem response to extreme weather events is critical to inform today’s management decisions.  

Sample poster by Take Care Tahoe Environmental Stewardship Program (2017) by Take Care TahoeCalifornia State Archives

Science, Stewardship, and Accountability

Cultivating environmental stewards is imperative to caring for and improving Lake Tahoe. Today, EIP partners strive to speak with one voice, engage the community in citizen-science and collaborative decision making, and provide full transparency on how EIP investments are made.

TRPA: Celebrating 50 Years

Fifty years ago, California and Nevada established the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) with the consent of Congress. TRPA is the nation’s first environmental organization with land use authority crossing state lines and continues to be unique in the United States.  

Celebrating 50 Years Protecting Lake Tahoe (2020) by Tahoe Regional Planning AgencyCalifornia State Archives

TRPA: Imagine. Plan. Achieve.

The bi-state compact charges TRPA with establishing a regional plan for the Tahoe Basin with the mandate to achieve environmental standards, called thresholds. The TRPA continues to protect and restore Lake Tahoe’s environment while revitalizing and enhancing local communities.

Looking Into the Future

In 2016, marking the 20th anniversary of the Lake Tahoe Summit, President Barack Obama reminds constituents of the importance of preserving Lake Tahoe.

Credits: Story

California State Archives
Sacramento, CA
 
Records provided courtesy of Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, Placer County, Take Care Tahoe, U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, Tahoe Daily Tribune, U.S. Forest Service, Nevada Division of State Lands, Nevada State Library, Archives and Public Records, and California Tahoe Conservancy.
The exhibit was created in partnership with Senator Alex Padilla’s Office, Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Office, Nevada Division of State Lands, Tahoe Fund, Nevada State Library, Archives and Public Records, and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.
 
Thank you to the following advisors and contributors: James Schwab, Lizette Mata, Dino Chen, Jim Lazarus, Caitlin Meyer, Ellery Stahler, Amy Berry, Liz Moore, and Victoria Ortiz.
Film and photograph editing by Brian Guido and Alese Ballard.
Text and imaging by Michelle Herman, Noël Albertsen, Ignacio Sanchez-Alonso, James Schwab, Victoria Ortiz, Ellery Stahler, and Tamara Martin.
 
Exhibit by Michelle Herman (2021).

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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