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August 13, 2007
By John Trent
Ten years ago, the eyes of the world were on Lake Tahoe, when President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore visited one of Nevada's most precious natural resources for the Lake Tahoe Presidential Summit.
The event was groundbreaking on a number of different levels, giving unprecedented worldwide and national exposure to Lake Tahoe.
The forum, which was organized by Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, promoted a collaborative effort to protect Lake Tahoe, which had seen its legendary clarity reduce at startling levels over the previous two decades. It culminated with a pledge of $50 million in federal spending for the basin's troubled environment by President Clinton.
In a ceremony on an Incline Village beach on July 26, 1997, Clinton 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 the $900 million environmental plan. Said President Clinton: "We cannot divide our quest for prosperity from our obligation to hand nature - God's great gift to us - on down through the generations."
Ten years later, the memory of the Clinton-Gore visit still remains vivid to the many of those who were there. In the years since, the event has grown into an annual gathering of federal, state and regional agencies, academic institutions, stakeholder groups and elected officials to discuss what progress has been made in improving Tahoe's ecology. This year's forum takes place on Friday, Aug. 17 at Sierra Nevada College. President Clinton is anticipated to be among the dignitaries in attendance.
Nevada's part in working to save Tahoe has been substantial, with researchers contributing in all aspects, from water to ground to air, with important studies conducted to assess the health of Tahoe's upper watershed; the relationship between fire, soil, runoff and water clarity; how to control assaults on forest health from the insect infestation such as bark beetles; the impacts of particulate matter from the air on Tahoe's water; development of science-based reintroduction strategies for Tahoe's native fish; comprehensive studies of Tahoe's seismology and fault structures; strategies for Tahoe homeowners to develop defensible space, conserve water and to fight the onslaught of invasive weeds, just to name a few. In addition, with the creation of the Academy for the Environment, the University has a centralized academic and research entity to aid in the coordination of science, as well as to further collaboration with other institutions through organizations such as the Tahoe Science Consortium, which comprises the community of scientists working at Lake Tahoe.
And it all stems from the events of a sunny weekend from the summer of 1997.
Wally Miller, University professor of natural resources and environmental science and associate director for research for the Academy for the Environment, calls the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum a catalyst for more active and productive collaboration among all the groups doing work at Lake Tahoe.
"The forum gave us the added incentive to start coordinating our research, to try to approach the issues in a more comprehensive manner," says Miller, whose research agenda at Tahoe stretches back nearly 30 years. "I don't think the progress we've been able to make over the 10 years would've taken place without the first summit. Before the visit by the President and Vice President, there were a lot of people doing work at Tahoe, but it was a lot of independent research. Now, we all look at the issues from a collective perspective, and that's been a good thing."
Miller, in particular, said he was impressed with Gore's fundamental grasp of environmental issues at Lake Tahoe. Miller and several other scientists partook in a Gore-led symposium held at the U.S. Forest Service's Visitor Center on Tahoe's south shore on July 25, 1997. Prior to the symposium, Gore had hiked a portion of the nearby Mount Tallac trail, seeing the state of the forest and the lake firsthand. His green Forest Service-issue shirt still stained with sweat from the vigorous hike, Gore sat down with several of Tahoe's most important scientific figures - including Miller - to discuss the issue of the day.
"Vice President Gore's understanding of the issues, and his breadth of knowledge on environmental issues in general, was pretty impressive," Miller says. "He did not stick to the script. He was so well-informed about the issues, he didn't need to stick to the script. It was very impromptu, very knowledgeable, and very good."
Glenn Miller, professor of natural resources and environmental science, was another Nevada faculty member who attended the summit. He, too, believes that without that first fateful gathering in 1997, Tahoe's health would not be where it is today.
"I was so impressed with Vice President Gore, and in fact, everyone who participated in that forum," says Miller, noting that in addition to Gore and Clinton, four Cabinet members attended the forum. "It was such a group consensus-building effort. It was probably the best consensus-building effort I've ever been involved in during my almost 30 years at the University of Nevada. And the consensus-building has carried through. The legacy of that 1997 summit is still with us today."
Here is a chronology of the events leading up to the 1997 Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum:
June 1996: Sen. Harry Reid extends an invitation to President Clinton for a First Family vacation and to discuss environmental issues concerning Lake Tahoe.
July 26, 1996: President Clinton announces he will not be coming to Tahoe for his vacation.
April 3, 1997: President Clinton tentatively agrees to come to Lake Tahoe for a summit on the environment. Event is initially planned for late spring.
May 12, 1997: Cabinet level meetings are planned, planners recommend that Vice President Gore preside over a working session on Saturday, July 26, with President Clinton concluding Sunday with an address.
June 5, 1997: White House confirms that both the president and the vice president will be coming to Tahoe for the Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum. Two-day event is scheduled a day earlier than previously announced.
June 18, 1997: First Cabinet-level workshop on water quality, hosted by Administrator Carol Browner of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at Tallac Historic Site.
June 19, 1997: Washoe Tribe announces intention to ask the president for return of ancestral land in the Tahoe Basin so that members can renew a centuries-old tradition of spending summers on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
June 30, 1997: Second Cabinet workshop on Forest Ecosystem Management/Recreation and Tourism. Hosting the conference in Incline Village are Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.
July 3, 1997: Presidential forum website up and running.
July 18, 1997: Summit forum locations announced. Vice President Gore at the Tallac Historic Site in South Lake Tahoe and President Clinton at the Hyatt Regency's Lakeside Lodge in Incline Village.
July 19, 1997: Third Cabinet-level workshop on Tahoe transportation, at the University of Nevada, Reno. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater presides, and is joined by directors of Nevada and California departments of transportation.
July 21, 1997: National Guard takes forum staffers and media on aerial tour of Tahoe.
July 23, 1997: Govs. Pete Wilson of California and Bob Miller of Nevada sign an agreement committing both states to supporting a $906.8 million package of environmental improvements at Lake Tahoe.
July 25, 1997: Vice President Al Gore arrives in Lake Tahoe. After a hike at Mount Tallac, he presides over a symposium on issues put together in three Cabinet-level workshops. Afterward, he has a closed-door meeting with Washoe Tribe elders.
July 26, 1997: President Clinton arrives in Incline Village. Vice President Gore joins him on the U.C. Davis research vessel Le Conte for a lesson in water quality. Afterward, President Clinton signs an Executive Order committing the federal government to the preservation and restoration of Lake Tahoe. Vice President Gore briefs President Clinton on the issues discussed at the vice president's symposium. A forum is held with a panel of Tahoe Basin residents and federal officials. The Washoe Tribe is granted about 400 acres of ancestral land in the Tahoe Basin. President Clinton also commits to federal spending of an additional $26 million in the Tahoe Basin over the next two years.
Source of chronology: Tahoe Daily Tribune, South Lake Tahoe, Calif.
John Trent is a senior editor in University Communications.