Climate change, wildfire risk highlighted at Lake Tahoe Summit
Hundreds recently gathered on the lawn at Valhalla Tahoe to hear from members of Congress and the governors of California and Nevada, but it was the issues of climate change and wildfire that truly took center stage.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein hosted the 23rd annual Lake Tahoe Summit on Tahoe’s South Shore, which included speeches from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, of Nevada; Gov. Steve Sisolak, of Nevada; Rep. John Garamendi; and Rep. Tom McClintock.
Gov. Gavin Newsom served as the morning’s keynote speaker for the bipartisan event, which examined restoration projects and ways to address new challenges facing Lake Tahoe.
“After the ’97 summit, both sides, Nevada and California, came together in what has become a private-public partnership that has endured to this day,” Feinstein said in her opening remarks. “I call this partnership Team Tahoe, and I’m very proud of being a member of it.”
Feinstein went into detail about the history of the partnership, which she said has invested more than $2 billion in the Lake Tahoe Basin, including more than $730 million from the federal government, which has gone toward funding nearly 700 restoration projects.
“What we are doing as a bi-state, bipartisan, public-private partnership is really working, and I want to say thank you to everybody,” added Feinstein. “Some of us here were at the very first (Lake Tahoe Summit) and have been coming and we recognized that what we’re dealing with now is climate change.”
Along with threats associated with climate change, Feinstein addressed the history and risk of wildfire in the basin along with recent mitigation efforts. She pointed to the Camp Fire and the destruction of Paradise when discussing the potential for wildfire in Tahoe, as well as the past blazes in the region, the Emerald and Angora fires.
“I don’t have to tell you about the risk of wildfire on the more than 77,000 acres of forest. That, I believe, has been reduced,” said Feinstein. “For example, the fire service is wrapping up a 9,000-acre project that spans from Heavenly to Cascade Lake. Crews are treating overcrowded forests to make them more resilient to insects and disease and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. Also Team Tahoe has restored 1,743 acres of streams and watershed, including the Johnson Meadow Acquisition along the Upper Truckee River.”
Seven C-130 airplanes have also recently been secured for use by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which, after upgrades are completed, will give the agency the largest aerial fleet in the world for fighting wildfires.
On the Nevada side of the lake, Sisolak used his time to speak on the work done to remove trees and create of defensible spaces on the east side of Tahoe.
“Last year we removed over 5,000 trees in the backcountry around Spooner Lake to create healthy and resilient landscape in this area,” said Sisolak. “Unfortunately, climate change is often deteriorating our forests more quickly than we can treat them.
“We also must double down on our efforts to understand how climate change is impacting the basin ecosystem as a whole,” he added.
Among environmental projects in the basin, Sisolak cited planned work on Highway 28, which runs from Crystal Bay to Highway 50. The project would add additional parking and remove shoulder parking from the corridor.
“By reducing unsafe parking on highway shoulders, providing new parking and transportation alternatives and ultimately, moving people throughout the corridor, we can protect the environment and provide a quality recreation experience for our visitors,” said Sisolak.
Newsom was unwavering when it came to the topic of climate change, challenging elected officials to act now.
“This notion of climate change being a dominant theme at this conference, I think, is damn self-evident. The hots are getting hotter. The wets are getting wetter. The dries are getting dryer. And Mother Nature, with all due respect, she may have been absent a decade ago, but she’s very, very present today in the conversation,” said Newsom.
“I’m not interested in debating it. We’re in the implementation business in California. We’re not pointing fingers anymore, we’re actually leading at a scale no other state in our union is leading. Our low-carbon, green growth goals are second to none. We have goals to get 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. We have commitments to get 5 million new electric vehicles out on the streets in the next 10 or so years. We have commitments to get to 100 percent renewable energy … last month we announced we have already exceeded our 2020 goals in terms of renewable portfolios, proving that this can be accomplished, proving that this can be done.”
Newsom added that while the state said it has exceeded 2020 goals in terms of renewable portfolios, it has continued to see economic growth.
“A $3 trillion a year economy that just last week announced we have 113 consecutive months of net job growth — a record in this state as we’re enjoying record surpluses in this state, record low unemployment in this state, 3.8 percent average GDP growth in this state over the last five years, and we are significantly reducing our greenhouse gases,” he said. “We are proving the paradigm at scale that no other state has done.”
Cortez Masto used her time to talk about the first Lake Tahoe Summit, which was attended by President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore. During that 1997 summit, many of the same topics — wildfires, forest restoration, congestion and the economy — were touched on. Climate change, however, wasn’t nearly the topic it has become today.
“It wasn’t their focus,” said Cortez Masto. “Today, we do not have the luxury of sidestepping climate change. Especially not when this administration has abandoned America’s crucial global leadership on this issue. We cannot put off solutions to carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions and we can’t ignore the effects of climate change that are visible around us every single day.”
Garamendi echoed those sentiments, challenging elected officials to address the issue.
“I don’t know at the end of this if anybody will go out there and record our failure as human beings in this generation to address the most fundamental challenge that this earth has,” said Garamendi. “If your elected officials are not willing at the county, the city, the state and the federal level to address this issue, they ought not be in office because this is our challenge.”
McClintock was the lone Republican among the politicians who addressed the crowd during the summit, and gave a chilling description of what a blaze like last year’s Camp Fire could do to the Tahoe Basin and its communities.
“Look around at all of the beauty that surrounds us here, and then consider this, by this time tomorrow, this beautiful scene could be very different — thick smoke, smoldering rubble, tons of ash falling all around us, fire crews desperately trying to stop a wall of fire moving up the basin,” he said.
“The town of Paradise began last Nov. 8 just like we are here today. The Camp Fire was 50 times larger than the Angora Fire. A similar fire here would mean the utter destruction of all of Tahoe’s communities, and be aware, our forests are no different than those that surrounded Paradise that day. A recent survey reported that the Tahoe Basin carries four times its safe fuel density.”
Following statements made by the governors and members of Congress at this year’s Lake Tahoe Summit, the League to Save Lake Tahoe issued a statement.
“It was encouraging to hear our state and national leaders’ commitment and urgency to ensuring Lake Tahoe remains resilient in the face of the climate crisis,” said CEO of the League to Save Lake Tahoe Darcie Goodman Collins in a news release. “Extreme forest fires as well as advancing aquatic invasive species threaten to cloud Tahoe’s pristine air and clear blue water unless all of us continue to work together. The League to Save Lake Tahoe shares our leaders’ dedication to the Jewel of the Sierra and we will continue to advance innovations and partnerships to Keep Tahoe Blue.”