Bill Clinton keynotes Tahoe Summit celebration

8/20/2007 7:00:00 AM

Ten years after a landmark visit, former President Bill Clinton returned to Lake Tahoe on Friday, recalling the unity of spirit that characterized his visit then, and how it has remained as much a part of Tahoe as the lake's legendary clear blue water.

The event at Sierra Nevada College was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum. In July 1997, Clinton on a Lake Tahoe beach not far from Sierra Nevada College's sylvan campus, signed an executive order that declared Lake Tahoe an area of national concern, citing the basin's extraordinary natural, recreational and ecological resources. Clinton's pledge was the kick-start to funding for the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency's Environmental Improvement Program, which eventually resulted in the federal government and California and Nevada committing to each paying a share of what has become a $1.1 billion environmental plan.

Looking back on that day, Clinton couldn't help but note the hope his executive order created. He said the spirit of cooperation that was created at Lake Tahoe hasn't abated.

"I remember when I got home, and I told my wife, Hillary, about what we had just done," he said to a crowd of about 1,000 on Friday. "I said, 'I am exceedingly optimistic about the future of my country for the next century. You should've been to this Tahoe deal. Nobody was giving any speeches. They were just talking.'"

Then Clinton smiled, noting that the event in 1997 had been unprecedented on many different levels, not only bringing national and worldwide attention to Lake Tahoe, but also in bringing together so many disparate groups for one cause.

"The point is," he said, turning from 1997 to 2007, "(the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum) was a respectable thing. Everyone agreed their interests and values depended on this lake."

He said that the event in '97 – and the subsequent annual re-gatherings of politicians and scientists, managers and community stakeholders to report on the progress made in saving Lake Tahoe – have created a model that all of America should emulate.

"You know," he said, "this is how America is supposed to work. When we are in the solutions business, this really is the greatest country in the world; there's no stopping us."

Clinton was introduced by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, the man who convened the first summit and invited both Clinton and Gore to attend.

Reid remembered that he was afraid the event might just turn into a quick fly-over by the nation's perpetually busy chief executive: "I thought they'd come here for about a half an hour, have some pictures taken, and then leave."

Instead, Reid said, was an experience that was quite the opposite. The Clinton White House took an immediate interest in Tahoe's problems.

"President Clinton held meetings in the White House, and told his cabinet and other administration officials that, 'We want to have a summit, and we want to have a good one,'" Reid said. "They held meetings, town hall meetings, symposiums, workshops and involved every federal agency that had anything to do with Lake Tahoe."

Clinton remembered the preparation with some humor, noting that he probably did more work 10 years ago to save Lake Tahoe. He smiled and slyly noted that his worth to Tahoe in 2007 probably was not as great: "We worked very hard on this conference 10 years ago."

He turned to the stage that he was sharing with, among others, Reid, former Nevada Sen. Richard Bryan (who served as master of ceremonies and who as a boy used to attend Camp Galilee on Tahoe's east shore), Nevada Sen. John Ensign, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne.

"I'm an afterthought in the sense that 10 years later I'm the only person speaking today who can't do a single thing to help you ... however, I know someone who I think can."

The gathered crowd cheered and applauded the reference to New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Clinton's wife a candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination for President.

Although Clinton was the headliner for Friday's event, much of the message from the other political and management leaders gathered centered on fire suppression and the recent ravages of the Angora Fire on Tahoe's south shore.

Ensign that after 10 years, it was time to perhaps re-focus the Tahoe agenda.

"We have to look at the whole ecosystem," Ensign said. "We can't just worry about soil erosion ... we've got to look at fire suppression. It's now got to be about looking at the whole (Tahoe) ecosystem."

"I know fire is on the minds of everyone today," Kempthorne said, noting that later that afternoon, he would sign a $132 million authorization for funds for Tahoe from the Reid-Ensign supported Southern Nevada Public Lands Management Act, with $10 million of that figure going to, among other things, a reduction of hazardous fuels at Tahoe. "These funds will significantly reduce the likelihood of fire."

Clinton said that Tahoe is at a unique intersection, representing how the impacts of global climate change can warm waters and change ecosystems, as well as how the public decides to conserve or at least plan ways to deal with diminishing natural resources.

He remembered how he and his wife had traveled to Yosemite and then took a sojourn to Lake Tahoe in 1971. His feeling then, as on Friday, hadn't diminished.

"Tahoe was special to me because it's a unique place on earth," Clinton said. "Not just for you or your children or your grandchildren, but for everybody."


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