NSights Blog

20 years later, Tahoe Summit continues to bring the best out in all of us

President Obama's visit on Aug. 31 should remind us all of the pivotal role U.S. Sen. Harry Reid has played in saving the lake.

I don't blame them.

When the Lake Tahoe Environmental Summit will be held on Aug. 31 on what will more than likely be an unseasonably warm and sunny day on the south shore of Lake Tahoe at Harvey's Outdoor Arena, all eyes will be on President Barack Obama.

And rightfully so.

President Obama will be only the second sitting U.S. president to attend the summit. President Bill Clinton was the first, during 1997's very first Tahoe Summit event.

But for me, as the Tahoe Summit celebrates its 20th anniversary, even as President Obama, the  most gifted political orator of his generation speaks about all things Tahoe, my eye will wander to a seemingly more quiet figure.

As President Obama talks about how we must continue to vigilant in our efforts to save Lake Tahoe, it will be hard not to steal a couple of glances at Nevada U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, who will no doubt be sitting close by, nodding quietly and approvingly.

There are few guarantees one can make about a president's speech ahead of time, but as a former political speechwriter, I can guarantee you this: President Obama will not just make a quick mention of Nevada's senior senator. He will, as President Bill Clinton did in 1997, remind the audience that if not for Sen. Reid, there would be no Lake Tahoe Summit, nor the massive infusion of funding and renewed attention and concern for Lake Tahoe that has characterized the 20 years since.

President Obama, as he always does, will wordsmith this better, but his message will be clear: Harry Reid asked me to come to Lake Tahoe, and I'm here today because of that fact.

On July 26, 1997, on another warm and brilliantly sunny day not far from the beach at Incline Village, just before noon, I stood in a gaggle of reporters, readying to write about the first Tahoe Summit. It was a heady time. Vice President Al Gore and members of the Clinton cabinet had arrived earlier, and had spoken with depth and understanding about Tahoe's major issues, most notably its legendary clarity, which had plummeted.

Vice President Gore hiked the trails near Fallen Leaf Lake. He came off the trail with his shirt sleeves clinging tightly to his body, the front of his shirt streaked with hard-earned, high-altitude sweat. I can still remember watching the Vice President - who not long after ran a marathon with his two daughters - having to gather his breath before speaking to reporters. Hundreds of spectators lined the roads in and out of south shore, and, later, when President Clinton arrived, the greenbelt near the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village resembled a mini-Woodstock, with hundreds of people on hand. Many cheered and waved and some simply stood with their mouths agape as Marine One, the presidential helicopter, majestically and powerfully lifted off at the conclusion of the summit, President Clinton safely situated inside. Sen. Reid was a visible presence throughout it all; he looked to me the way a proud father would look when showing someone the beauty of his own family. The source of his pride was clear. It was Tahoe.

At the 2013 Tahoe Summit, Sen. Reid remembered what the first summit was like: "Gore and Clinton, they weren't going to settle for a photo-op. They had four cabinet officers come here, not only for a visit, but to do hearings with the people here. Environmentalists, developers, state and local government and more than 50 organizations participated. It was really something. Now I can look back, and, actually, we spent two days that first summit, it wasn't something that was good for our states from a public relations perspective for one day, not just for our nation, but it was an international event for two days, and people focused on this great part of nature that was being hurt. And, it was a wonderful event. And we finished this event with speeches that were given, but as soon as we finished it, there was a presidential executive order designating this lake as a national priority; and that's the main reason that we've been able to spend here since that time $1.8 billion dollars."

And it all began because of conversations first between Sen. Reid and Vice President Gore, then President Clinton.

President Clinton's remarks on July 26, 1997 said it about as well as anyone could say it: "But I would be remiss if I did not say a special word of thanks to the person who thought this idea up and got my commitment months ago - months ago - to show up, if you'll forgive me, come hell or high water. And here we are in the middle of the budget negotiations we're trying to finish today back in Washington, but I am here because I promised Harry Reid months ago I would be here."

Such is the profound influence Harry Reid has had on Lake Tahoe. I don't want to talk political ideology here, because Lake Tahoe has always been above ideology. It's a treasure, and as such, both Democrats and Republicans have worked hard over the years to ensure that the best science has informed on-the-ground management. Because of this connection between science and stewardship, the lake's remarkable clarity hasn't receded and remains today its most defining feature.

Sen. Reid has played an instrumental role in this process. His talented staff has proven to be remarkably nimble and attentive to all stakeholders. He's used his position of influence in the senate to help steward funding and resources to the preservation of Lake Tahoe.

In many ways, he's furthered a long-standing Nevada tradition that has seen our leaders take interest in this mountain jewel. I can't help but think of the work of many who have come before Sen. Reid, most notably the late Republican state senator, Coe Swobe, who, along with then Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt and California Gov. Ronald Reagan helped forge the bi-state compact between the two states in the late 1960s, which was the first significant step in the long road to preserving Lake Tahoe.

In his later years, I had the opportunity to interview Coe on numerous occasions. With his grand nimbus of white hair, glasses pleasantly fogged with fingerprints and a ready smile, Coe was one of the warmest and most welcoming politicians I've ever known. He could always find in commonalities the good deeds of others, and he would quickly use them as reasons for praise. He was always direct in his praise of Sen. Reid, and the work that the senator was doing on Tahoe's behalf.

"He knows this is the right thing to do, and he's gone about garnering unprecedented support and attention for Tahoe," Coe said of Sen. Reid.

One afternoon in 2007, after Coe had visited my office in the basement of Jones Visitor Center, he took me for a walk on the University Quadrangle. Coe, a third-generation Nevadan who graduated from the University following service in the Korean War, still loved the campus. It was a hot summer day, and as we talked, Coe's pace increased. He began weaving the political history of Tahoe through his experiences of driving to Lake Tahoe for meetings with Gov. Laxalt in a single, plain, white, state of Nevada car, with hardly any security detail on hand. They'd meet the California delegation, which "resembled a small army" of dozens of sleek, dark sedans, filled with all the various officials, assistants and security.

"It was amazing we were able to get anything done," he laughed. But, there was a sense of urgency, even then. "Paul Laxalt and Ronald Reagan did not want Lake Tahoe to turn gray on their watch," Coe added. "They were pretty adamant about it."

In his own words, Paul Laxalt has described the instrumental work of Coe Swobe during 1967-68 as two state legislatures worked with the wording and came to agreement on a bill that would "simplify" Tahoe's management into a regional agency.

"For the next several months, Senator Swobe worked feverishly with public and private interests," Laxalt wrote in his biography. The bi-state compact bill, aka "the Swobe bill" was approved in the Nevada State Senate by a vote of 19-0 and in the Nevada State Assembly by a margin of 37-2 in February 1968 during a special legislative session convened by Laxalt.

Laxalt called the bill "one of the most significant conservation measures in the history of the nation ... designed to protect a priceless treasure."

"Senator Swobe, a 39-year-old State Senator at the time, was enormously helpful," Laxalt wrote. "To this day, I owe him a debt of gratitude for a job well done."

As we walked that afternoon, Coe talked about Sen. Reid's role, and how the senator had helped mobilize a renewed sense of mission regarding Lake Tahoe. He said that Reid's influence had reached into all sectors - the political, the scientific, the public.

"There are so many talented professors and scientists on this campus, and the attention that Harry Reid has helped bring to Lake Tahoe has helped make them all feel like the scientific work at Tahoe is making an important difference," he said. Coe was practically walking away from me, he was moving so quickly and with such excited purpose. I thought for a moment he might drop me completely and keep hiking straight into the mountains, to Lake Tahoe, to join Sen. Reid to do more work. "But that's what an elected official is supposed to do. You bring attention to an issue, and then you use all of the resources at your disposal to solve a problem or make a difference for others. He's done a fantastic job of that."

Coe passed away in Reno, three days after his 87th birthday, on May 26. Our state's newspapers all wrote about the profound influence Coe had had on saving Lake Tahoe.

On Aug. 31, as the President of the United States speaks, I will be thinking of Coe, and I will be watching Sen. Reid very closely. Sen. Reid will no doubt, as is his fashion, deflect any praise President Obama sends his way, more than likely with a gentle wave and one of those calm smiles he often flashes.

When he does that, it will take me back to 1997, when Sen. Reid was nearby when another president was speaking. The president's message then is a message we need to remember today.

Lake Tahoe, irrespective of political ideology, thanks to men like Sen. Harry Reid and the late Coe Swobe, remains blue because of the work of Nevada's best - our best political leaders, our best managers, our best researchers and scientists, our best instincts as a people.

"Democracies," President Clinton said on that historic day a little more than 20 years ago, "only do things when a real majority of people really want to do them. And we have this enormous set of opportunities, and you have shown us here not only how to deal with the environmental challenges, but how we ought to come together to make the most of our most common future."

Sen. Reid has said it many times regarding Lake Tahoe, and he's right: Lake Tahoe is one of the best examples the world will ever see in working together, for the good of all. It continues, thanks to his untiring work over the past 20 years, to bring out the best in all of us.

John Trent, Senior Editor for News and Features at the University, covered the first Lake Tahoe Summit in 1997 as a reporter for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

John Trent