I appreciate the invitation to speak today among these distinguished public officials about the future of Lake Tahoe, and I especially want to thank Sen. Heller for bringing us all together today for a candid discussion about the future of Lake Tahoe.
When I visit with community groups here - not the politicians or the professional environmentalists, but the shopkeepers and employees who actually live and work here - their singular struggle is with a stagnating economy and a staggering unemployment rate hovering around 16 percent.
The El Dorado County Board of Supervisors last year received an extensive economic study of the Tahoe Basin. It warns that the occupancy rate of hotels here is running at a dismal 30 percent. Food stamp usage is up 40 percent in the last four years. School enrollment is down 35 percent over the past decade. The basin's population has plunged by nine percent. The study's manager warns - quote - "The middle class is fleeing the (Tahoe) basin in droves."
Three years ago at this summit, I said, "I hope today we can agree that restoring the proper balance between the environment and the economy is not only the prudent thing to do, but also the right the thing to do."\
That hasn't happened.
TRPA's executive director seems to be trying to move toward a more sympathetic approach to local concerns, but she's often stymied by her Board. Nowhere in TRPA's mission statement is there a word about the economy. You have to dig deep into their web site to find even a passing reference to it.
The Tahoe citizens who call my office complain of being thwarted in their attempts to protect their property from fire danger, or to make minor and harmless improvements to their homes, or of being assessed exorbitant fees, or of being denied simple permits by boards they can't even elect.
They feel they have lost control of their own communities to state and regional agencies that are utterly unresponsive to the people who actually live here.
They feel that every attempt to develop or make property improvements is crushed by a permitting process that usually costs more than the project itself. In one case, a homeowner who needed to make $8,000 in pier repairs found it would cost between $20,000 and $25,000 just in permit fees.
Worse, none of the agencies coordinate with each other, so one agency will require actions that another agency prohibits.
The Lahonton Water Board is the worst of them. It repeatedly blocked fuel reduction projects by the US Forest Service's Tahoe Basin Unit, until the Forest Service's new manager, Nancy Gibson, went to a Board hearing in April and essentially said "the next fire is on you."
Homewood resort is in desperate need of a long-term use permit for winter skiing that has been going on there for 40 years - and upon which $40 million of private financing depends. Yet, even after receiving approval from TRPA and the US Forest Service, the effort is now stalled by environmental litigation.
Today's theme is private-public partnerships for environmental improvement, but there's not going to be a private sector left unless we get serious about economic improvement.
Tahoe's unique environment and breath-taking beauty comprise a vital foundation both for tourism and for the quality of life of its residents.
But tourists don't go where they're not welcomed, or where facilities are left to decay because simple repairs can't be made, or where prices are inflated to pay for exorbitant fees, or where forest fires have scarred the landscape.
And as for quality of life, people are fleeing Lake Tahoe, and a lot of them are heading to the Nevada desert. With all due respect, no conceivable act of God could turn Lake Tahoe into a less desirable place for people to live and work and raise a family than the Nevada desert. Only acts of government could do that. And they have.
Lake Tahoe has no more zealous or trustworthy guardians of its environment and its economy than the people who actually live here, and it is high time they had these decisions restored to them through local elections.
I offer these thoughts as something for us on the platform to consider as we drive away this afternoon, and leave the residents of Tahoe to live with the result of the decisions that they once made for themselves - but that are now made for them by regional boards they can't elect.