Monday, January 28, 2013

Saving Tahoe: My open letter to the Sierra Club

To: The Sierra Club of Lake Tahoe
CC: EarthJustice, The League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe Environmentalist community

Part 1: Why Building Nothing is Not An Option

We all have an image of Lake Tahoe in our minds, is it the right one? (more photos)
It is really really easy to fall in love with Lake Tahoe, and I've got to sympathize with you guys wanting to protect Lake Tahoe because I want to protect Lake Tahoe, too. I'm an environmentalist myself. I have a YouTube playlist of 14 Environment videos so far. I've been to the Tahoe summit, and in fact I covered the Tahoe Summit in about ten times the detail that anyone else has ever covered the Tahoe summit. I cover green building issues in Tahoe whenever I can. I am also a local who has grown up in and lived in Tahoe all his life. I'm telling you this because I don't want you to think that I'm on the other side from you guys: I am not some pro-development radical, I'm an environmentalist just like you are.

But, it is very easy to fall into the cognitive illusion that Lake Tahoe is a place that is barely inhabited. Everybody wants to put the pretty thumbnail on their blog, and I'll admit this for myself because I'm as guilty of it as anyone: if I have the choice between showing you guys a beautiful lakeshore scene like this and showing you an ugly strip mall with power lines, 9 times out of 10 I'm going to show you the beautiful picture of the pristine Lake Tahoe because that's what you want to see. That's what you're gonna click on, that's what you're going to positively comment on.

The Problem with Tahoe's Built Environment

If we wanna get real for a minute, THIS is the archetectural reality I live in!

 We all have this image in our head of Lake Tahoe and how things should and should not be in Lake Tahoe, and sometimes we have a tendency to reason based on the image in our heads instead of the reality on the ground. The problem with Lake Tahoe's architecture is that Lake Tahoe was built in a rush in the 1950s and 1960s in order to take advantage of the publicity of the Squaw Valley winter Olympics up here in Lake Tahoe in 1960. When we built most of the buildings in Lake Tahoe there was no such thing as the notion of a shorezone or a stream zone. This enormous parking lot I'm standing in drains directly to Lake Tahoe less than 10 feet away from the shores of Lake Tahoe, yet nobody does anything about it because we're all so petrified of that image of bulldozers in the Lake Tahoe environment.

Well, frankly, some of these buildings are reaching the end of their natural architectural life and it's becoming structurally necessary to replace them. Some of these buildings need to be removed or restored for purely aestetic reasons because they're ugly.

 But we can't let that image in our head determine how we think about Lake Tahoe because the image in our heads often leads us wrong. So, in this video I'm going to show you some great examples of places where the image in your head is is completely counter to what the actual environmental impact of the things that they're doing are.

Cabin Creek

I have been so frustrated over the last three years of doing my channel in Lake Tahoe about the fact that whenever I see a positive environmental development in Lake Tahoe, it's blocked by the people who call themselves environmentalists!

  Up at Cabin Creek on the north shore they want to build a biomass plant. Now look, I understand just how upsetting the idea of a huge smokestack in Lake Tahoe can be. I know there's this impulse when you're thinking about Lake Tahoe to treat every tree as if it's sacred, but you can't treat every tree as sacred when half of the trees are dead and ready to burn down. Trees like this are a fire hazard and unfortunately we're reaching a cycle in which they are going to have to be actively managed.

Burning slash piles in the open is inefficient and leads to smog and related health problems.
It is not a choice. --What? We're gonna burn the town down?-- We relly don't have a choice of whether we actively manage our forests or not. If we fail to build the biomass plant at Cabin Creek all of the wood from the dead trees in Lake Tahoe will have to be burned out in the open resulting in four times the soot emissions and a much less efficient burning of the wood involved. And, with a biomass plant we actually get energy for burning that wood. Right now it hangs as a polluting smog over Lake Tahoe whenever we have a controlled burn. According to Forest Business Network Once we build the biomass plant at Cabin Creek we will have 1/4 the emissions from wood burning in Lake Tahoe and we will have a local renewable source of energy besides. It is environmentally insane to oppose the Cabin Creek project even if it is one of those "smokestack in Tahoe" moments where you really wouldn't do it if you had any better choice.

Rebuilding the Natural Environment

Views of Lake Tahoe with fresh snow (More Pictures).
We didn't build it right the first time, and the simple fact is that if we disinhabited Lake Tahoe tomorrow and left the built environment in place, that rotting built environment would be destroying water quality for a century to come. A Century! Water quality will continue to decline if we do absolutely nothing, and that's why building nothing is NOT a viable option in Lake Tahoe. We have already made some terrible mistakes that have to be rectified and rectifying those mistakes is going to take money and it's going to take construction.

Lam Watah trail to Nevada Beach.
This is my favorite park up here in Tahoe. It's called the Lam Watah trailhead and it leads to Nevada beach, and it's a perfect example of how hard it can be to figure out if something is disturbed or not in Lake Tahoe. To look at this park you would think that it had been a beautiful undisturbed meadow since Washoe times, and you would be absolutely wrong. This was once Sky Harbor international airport where everyone who flew into Tahoe from about 1920 to 1950 flew into Lake Tahoe. It was a notoriously scary airport because you went into the drink if you missed the runway, and in order to build it they had to straighten out Burke Creek behind me in such a way that it was dumping huge amounts of sediment into the lake.

It sat empty for 20 years until there was an uproar about the possibility of building a casino on this site, and then the people came together and they did something truely amazing: they deeded the land to the Tahoe Conservancy and the conservancy hired a landscape archetect who built this beautiful meadow that you see. This is NOT an actual undisturbed meadow, it's a landscape architect's award-winning fantasy of an undisturbed meadow! And, in this particular case, though it's really hard to see bulldozers moving through a beautiful natural environment, I have to remember that this environment would only be here because of the bulldozers, because if there had been no bulldozers this would still be an overgrown vacant lot. If there had been no development at all this would be back to being forest by now.

The bulldozers in Lake Tahoe are not always doing environmental harm. Sometimes they're doing wonderfull resrotation projects like this, but we can only do wonderfull restoration projects like this if we have the resources and to have the resources means that we have to have a local economy that generates both people who care passionately about Lake Tahoe, both as tourists and locals, and that generates the money necessary for us to do the environmental work that so desperately needs to be done here.

The simple fact is that Tahoe is beloved around the world BECAUSE people come here. If we don't have that tourist economy that brings people to Lake Tahoe and builds our national and international fame, people are going to be a lot less passionate about taking care of this beautiful natural wonder we have here. It's because people come here, because they get to fall in love at first sight like all of us who live here fall in love at first sight... It's because of that that they care so deeply, that they're willing to call their own congressman across the country and tell him to support environmental restoration at Lake Tahoe. But, if we can't build we do not have the population base, or the tax base, or eventually even the tourist base to be able to swing the political influence necessary to do the trillion dollars worth of restoration work that needs to be done at Lake Tahoe.

We shouldn't disinhabit Lake Tahoe. I want a Tahoe where there's music in the air in the summertime. I want a Lake Tahoe that people come and enjoy and fall in love with just like I have. But, to be able to do that we have to build an economy that can be sustained, that can generate the revenue necessary for us to make the huge investment in environmental restoration that has to be made in Lake Tahoe. A trillion dollars isn't just going to magically appear out of nowhere. (Please, lobby the federal government to give us some of that money...) but the simple fact is that we're going to have to earn a lot of that money ourselves and in order to earn that money we have to have an economy. We have to have an economy that can be taxed to produce property taxes and income taxes to drive the environmental restoration we need up here in Tahoe.

Part 2: Why endless Lawsuits are NOT the answer

 In this part I'm going to argue why the lawsuit culture around the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency is so counterproductive in terms of getting anything positive for the environment done up here in Lake Tahoe.  And I'm gonna give some of what I think are my best examples of why I think the Sierra Club does not need to be messing around in the TRPA's business because the TRPA actually knows better than they do on a lot of these issues.

Sierra Club Blocks Homewood Expansion

Earthjustice recently blocked Homewood on the far side of the lake from expansion. -- See lawsuit here (PDF) Homewood had put in for an environmental assessment of their ski resort expansion.  They told the TRPA exactly what would be an economic expansion for their ski resort and the TRPA told them how to do it in an environmentally responsible way.  All well and good, I am for having economic opportunities here in Lake Tahoe, and, frankly, skiing is a hell of a lot less environmentally disruptive than light manufacturing would be. (Yes, skiing does have it's environmental problems but they can be mitigated.) And, if Homewood is not able to expand in a way that is economic, that brings the economic benefits to the west shore of Lake Tahoe, they will also not be able to do any of the great environmental improvements that they have promised to do as a part of that expansion. 

How it works in Tahoe is that when a major employer expands they are obliged to do a bunch of best management practices to make sure that that expansion does not harm the Tahoe environment.  There is a drainage situation going on at Homewood that needs to be remedied: there are pipes that drain from the parking lot straight under the highway and into the lake.  Now, if Homewood is allowed to do their expansion, they will redesign that parking lot to eliminate that runoff.  They will build catching ponds that catch the water and let it seep into the ground and into the lake via the ground rather than running straight into the lake, dirty.  They have agreed to do environmental mitigation on their slopes -- which they already do, by the way -- for all the slopes they expand.  This is one of the most environmentally responsible ski resort expansions I have ever read about and you guys are blocking it! Why? Apparently because there is no such thing as a development in Lake Tahoe that is green enough for you.

Sierra Colina

Another local development that has been stopped by pointless enviromental action is the Sierra Colina development. Up by Kingsbury grade there is a neighborhood that, if it's ever built, will be called Sierra Colina.  Sierra Colina is a deed restricted LEED-Platinum certified neighborhood.  In order to be allowed to build in Sierra Colina you will have to certify that your house is meeting the strictest possible environmental standard. There is no environmental standard I have ever heard of that is stricter than LEED Platinum and you have to do pretty much every possible environmental gain. 

Now, the League to Save Lake Tahoe stopped Sierra Colina from being built over about 18 feet of trail access that would be tremendously beneficial to the public.  Sierra Colina is not in a stream zone, there is a stream at the border of Sierra Colina but that lot is conservancy land and it will never be built.  (And, of course, the TRPA will never allow the building of the stream zone parcel whether it's concervancy land or not.) And to "protect" this stream zone parcel we're going to not do the $525,000 in environmental work that was agreed to as a condition of Sierra Colina's development that would have stopped literally tons of sediment from flowing into the Lake.

The sad thing is that what it was really stopped for in the federal courts is that there's 18 feet of road that will provide access to the wonderfull trail network just the back side of Sierra Colina.  Which will, personally, make my favorite trail walk about a mile shorter and will be tremendously beneficial to the bicycling and trail walking communities in South Lake Tahoe; and because they decided to build their community in a bicycle-friendly, environment friendly way the League to Save Lake Tahoe tried to absolutely barred them from any future construction.  Is that fair? 

Luckily a federal judge ruled that Sierra Colina could proceed (PDF) but the project is still

Boulder Bay

Or, another one of these situations where you have prevented something that would actually be an environmental benefit is Boulder Bay up on the north shore.  Boulder Bay is going to take out old 1950s and 60s buildings that have been sitting underutilized and largely empty over the years and replace them with a source of jobs for the local economy, tourisim jobs that sustain people's love of Lake Tahoe, and it's going to be done in a strongly environmental way.  In order to get approved by the TRPA in the first place they had to agree to the strictest environmental building codes.  They had to agree to very strict shorezone regulations -- just because they're in the shorezone does not mean we can NEVER build...

Ignoring Reality on Boar Bouys

We had a situation where the TRPA decided it was not worthwhile to spend their money on enforcement on illegal boat bouys out on the lake.  They did a study and decided to admit the reality that these bouys don't cause much environmental harm where they are and the Lake can actually support a lot more boats without major harm even with them there.  There was an environmental lawsuit -- an instant environmental lawsuit -- that said "Oh, we can't expand the number of boat bouys on the lake."  After years of study do you not trust the experts on this? (sigh!)

Moving Forward

In part 1 I visited locations all over Lake Tahoe that will show you the shocking state of Lake Tahoe's built environment and the terrible situation that we're risking by not building.  We can build a sustainable future here in Lake Tahoe. I know it!  But in order to build a sustainable future we first have to unbuild the future from 50 years ago when we weren't thinking sustainably and make sure that it's being replaced.

Yes, there is a role for the Sierra Club in protecting Lake Tahoe and I strongly support you in that role.  But it can't be that we stop everything because we can't build a sustainable future without building.  If you really want to help lobby the states of Nevada and California to adopt the Green Building Challenge as their statewide building codes. That will help us maintain a snow Lake Tahoe instead of a Lake Tahoe where it doesn't snow anymore (also see my "Skiiers Against Global Warming" video for more on that.).  We need better building codes nationwide and I do favor the strictest environmental building codes everywhere, not just in Lake Tahoe.  We need to have local regulators who are functional and who are able to enforce the rules where they need to be enforced but also who are able to cut the citizens the slack they need to have to be able to live the Tahoe lifestyle up here.

The TRPA was founded in 1969 by an interstate compact between California and Nevada.  They didn't want Lake Tahoe to "go gray on their watch" to use the words the politicians of the time used, and they especially didn't want to be blamed for that so they founded the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.  For 40 years the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has determined the planning direction of Lake Tahoe and they have been ruthless environmentalists stopping just about everything. 

It got so bad that the state of Nevada threatened to pull out of the Tahoe regional compact and not be in the TRPA's jurisdiction anymore with S.B. 271. If you click on the annotation you can see my long delicately argued arguement against SB 271 that I made back in the day.  I'm not going to repeat it here, but suffice it to say that SB 271 would remove Nevada from the TRPA's jurisdiction and basicly lead to San Jose style development on the Nevada side in Lake Tahoe.  This video is an arguement of some more examples of the lawsuit culture around the TRPA and why environmental lawsuits are not productive in moving the environment forward here in Lake Tahoe.
We need a strong federal regulator in the TRPA who is actually able to enforce... S.B. 271 has not been removed yet, it is still the law of the land in Nevada that if the TRPA's general plan is blocked Nevada is going to pull out of the TRPA and leave Lake Tahoe without a federal enforcement agency.  That cannot be allowed, and in order to build that sustainable future we need an active environmental regulator up here in Tahoe. And sueing at this point would stop even that from functioning. If you stop the good guys from doing the environmental plans that they need to do you're going to leave yourself without the regulatory enforcement you need against the bad guys who will come later.

So long as there's a TRPA, Tahoe is never going to turn into San Jose; but the moment it's gone, then we will have complete and uncontrolled development -- at least on the Nevada side -- and we'll have another distaster on the scale of the 50s and 60s in Lake Tahoe.  We have the technology to build correctly now, but we need an active regulator to mandate that that technology be used. 
So, Thank you for listening to my rant.