Beauty Transcends Politics

The Tahoe Summit celebrates 20 years, with keynote speaker President Barack Obama.


Jamie Wanzek, Managing Editor

In the wake of Lake Tahoe’s warmest yearboth water and air temperaturethe repercussions of climate change are prevalent in the basin’s delicate ecosystem. From water clarity to invasive species to forest vegetation, the warming temperature’s effects are alarming for America’s beloved ‘jewel of the Sierra.’ Therefore, the conversation regarding humans’ responsibility toward protecting Lake Tahoe is crucial.

Leading the conversation at a pivotal time in Tahoe’s environmental history, on Aug. 31, the 20th annual Tahoe Summit welcomed an array of local, state and federal officials to discuss and celebrate the state of Lake Tahoeincluding a keynote address from President Barack Obama. The event gathered a sell-out audience of 7,200-plus people at Harvey’s Outdoor Arena in South Lake with an after show featuring The Killers.

Obama address environmental conservation for the 20th annual Tahoe Summit. Photo: Jamie Wanzek

“When we protect our lands, it helps us protect the climate for the future. So conservation is critical, not just for one particular spot, one particular park, one particular lakeit’s critical for our entire ecosystem,” noted Obama in his keynote address.

In 1997, Lake Tahoe began revealing its first signs of environmental declination. The forests were posing massive fire threats, while the water was losing its renowned clarity (at an average rate of one foot per year). This worrisome trend, that exhibited a daunting future for the lake, served as an important force for local politicians and nonprofits to discuss the state of Tahoe.

Initiated by Sen. Harry Reid in July 1997, the first annual presidential Tahoe summit was born “because the world discovered the beauty of Lake Tahoe and it was being loved to death.” As Reid’s fourth and final term, he also hosted the 2016 Tahoe Summit.  

The initial event hosted President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and top Tahoe politicians to bring awareness and education. The first annual event held at Commons Beach, with an audience of 500 people, planted a seed in the conservation of Lake Tahoe. Since the first Tahoe Summit, it encouraged nearly $2 billion investment over the past two decades, encouraging restoration projects, research and education.

“We reached a goal, now we have to build on progress. That is what today is about: celebrating,” said Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who, alongside Obama, help protect more acres of land and water than any administration in history.

Deemed a modern day Theodore Roosevelt and ‘the greatest environmental president of all time,’ according to Sen. Barbara Boxer, Obama’s presence at the Tahoe Summit brought a localized lens to his conservation efforts across the countryand the world.

“We do it because places like this nurture and restore the soul. We want to make sure this is there for our kids, too. As a former Washoe tribe leader once said, “The health of the land and the health of the people are tied together. What happens to the land also happens to the people,” said Obama.

Obama recognized the groundwork Clinton and Reid laid 20 years ago, while noting Lake Tahoe is proof that humans can control climate change. During his visit in Tahoe, he exhibited Tahoe as an example of federal and local governments aligning to protect their land.  His speech was also centralized around the imminent connection between conservation and climate change.

“We have proven that the choice between our environment, economy and health are a false one. We’ve got to strengthen all of them together,” said Obama.


The next generation listens to Obama’s address

Obama’s stop at the Tahoe Summit was part of an 11-day international tour about conservation. During Obama’s tour, he visited his home state of Hawaii, where he recently expanded the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, as well as the Midway Atoll in Asia and finally China for his recent climate deal.

Although Obama was the center point for excitement, the 20th annual Tahoe Summit was also a rallying point for both California and Nevada politicians such as Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada, California Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Sen. Barbara Boxer to celebrate the growth between 1997 and today and looking forward.

“Lake Tahoe is the jewel of the Sierra, which Mark Twain called ‘the fairest picture the whole earth affords.’ It is home to 290 species of wildlife and is known around the world for its breathtaking vistas and pristine water clarity,” said Boxer.  “But we’ve had our problems. That is why we brought Clinton here in ’97.  And we are, yes, here to celebrate the progress, but also note, we have more work to do.”

In political action for protecting the lake, Boxer signed on as a co-sponsor of the Lake Tahoe Restoration Bill. This bill will add $450 million in federal funding over the next 10 years for the restoration of Lake Tahoe. This bill is currently winding its way through the U.S Senate and House of Representatives floor. This is also part of a larger bill called the Water Resources Development Acta reference to public laws and water resources such as environmental, structural, navigational, flood protection and hydrology.

“This past January, the act was approved unanimously by the Environment and Public Works committee. Unanimously! This is a fabulous accomplishment. And I hope you all keep the pressure on, because if we get that done, we are on our way,” said Boxer.

California Governor Jerry Brown also spoke in regards to protecting Lake Tahoe during the rally. “We are here because of this beauty,” he said. “This pristine, natural beauty transcends politics.”

While the conservation of Lake Tahoe is important for future generations, locals also rely on Tahoe’s environmental health economically.

“We’ve had drought issues for the last four years. Not only does it affect our lake and our environment, but also our tourism, which is huge here in Lake Tahoe,” said South Lake local Aimi Xistra-Rich. “It’s been a big issue here that is also affecting other aspects of our life including employment and tourism. Lake Tahoebeing the jewel of the Sierrait’s a big concern for our country’s tourist destinations.”

Although the event brought the rhetoric of important officials, the Tahoe Summit also gathered locals and nonprofit advocacy and education groups. Outside the arena in a display of white tents, lay the base of Tahoe’s futurethose committed to protecting, educating, and conserving Lake Tahoe. Organizations such as Keep Tahoe Blue, U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, U.S Forest Service, Desert Research Institute, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and the Washoe Indian Tribe represented those working tirelessly to tackle Tahoe’s environmental conundrum.

“The Tahoe Summit is always a great way for everyone to gather and share what they’ve been working on. When Clinton came, it had a huge impact on the attention put on Tahoe and everyone’s hard work,” said Jess Sigal, a Keep Tahoe Blue community engagement associate. “Tahoe received more funds because [of] his visit, and we are hoping by Obama being here it will shed National light on all the hard work that’s being done to protect the environment today.” Keep Tahoe Bluean original sponsor of the initial Tahoe Summitis the oldest league in Tahoe committed to the restoration, and sustaining the lake’s environmental health for future generations.

While his visit was short due to a very busy speaking schedule, Obama was so impressed with the beauty and environment of Tahoe that he made a promise.

“This place is spectacular, highest, deepest, purest lakes in the world,” Obama said. “I’ll be coming around, I told you. I just won’t have Marine One.”