Photo Credit: President Barack Obama makes remarks at the 20th Anniversary Lake Tahoe Summit at Lake Tahoe Outdoor Arena in Nevada, Aug. 31, 2016.  Official White House photo by Pete Souza

On August 31 of this year more than 7,000 people came together to reflect on 20 years of progress and challenges of environmental improvement in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The 20th Annual Lake Tahoe Summit included remarks by Senators Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein and Harry Reid; California Governor Jerry Brown; and Assistant Secretary of the Interior Janice Schneider.

President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address on the importance of innovation and partnerships in conserving the natural environment. “Just as the health of the land and the people are tied together,” he said, “just as climate and conservation are tied together, we share a sacred connection with those who are going to follow us… The future generations who deserve clear water and clean air that will sustain their bodies and sustain their souls.”

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore attended the first Lake Tahoe Summit and pledged substantial investment in the Lake Tahoe Region. That event also launched the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program, a partnership of federal, state and local agencies, private interests, and the Washoe Tribe. The program develops meaningful connections among restoration focus areas, and provides a platform to leverage and track investments and accomplishments from all sectors.

Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program Focus Areas

Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program Focus Areas

At the 20th Annual Summit Assistant Secretary Janice Schneider announced funding for local community fire adaptation and forest management work, which was a big deal for the Tahoe Basin. This celebration attended by policymakers, scientists, activists, managers and the public created a palpable feeling that mitigation is moving forward, and reinforced the importance of sustaining the efforts.

For practitioners working on community fire adaptation, the Summit also provided an opportunity to reflect on how our work connects to the broader efforts of conservation on a local, regional and global scale.

The president noted that “a single wildfire in a dangerously flammable Lake Tahoe Basin could cause enough erosion to erase decades of progress when it comes to water quality.” Lake Tahoe’s story and its pride of place are tied just as strongly to the basin’s forested landscape as to the lake’s clear blue waters. Preserving and protecting clean water requires conserving surrounding landscapes, and the human and ecological communities within them.

In a recent post, Jonathan Bruno discussed the imperative of providing a platform to coalesce our most important and impactful messages. He writes that “a consistent and persistent message is needed to keep wildfire adaptation practices and needs in the forefront of policymakers’ minds.” Cohesive, consistent messaging is effective at building support, and it begins at a local level. It requires building partnerships with organizations and people from multiple disciplines and perspectives, and thoughtful communication about the connections between fire adaptation and the sustainability of natural resources that we depend on for the health of our economies and communities.

“Conservation is critical not just for one particular spot, one particular park, one particular lake. It’s critical for our entire ecosystem” the president said. “We embrace conservation… because when most of the 4.5 million people who come to Lake Tahoe every year are tourists, economies like this one live or die by the health of our natural resources.” The story is the same for more and more fire-prone areas throughout the United States. Urbanization is increasing, and the US rural populations are declining for the first time in history. Estimates predict that urbanized land area will more than double by 2050. As urban areas continue to expand, people will increasingly look to the areas where we work for recreation, for clean water and for solace.

(left-to-right) Asst. Secretary Janice Schneider, Senator Barbara Boxer, Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Harry Reid, President Barack Obama. Credit: Mike Vollmer

(left-to-right) Asst. Secretary Janice Schneider, Senator Barbara Boxer, Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Senator Harry Reid, President Barack Obama. Credit: Mike Vollmer

This celebration of success comes at a time when we are faced with dire regional and global challenges. The temperature of Lake Tahoe is rising at its fastest rate yet, and is currently the warmest on record. An extended drought in California has led to unprecedented levels of insect infestation and tree mortality in the central and southern Sierra Nevada, and the epidemic is moving north, with 66 million dead trees counted in the most recent survey. The day of the Summit marked the close of Earth’s 16th straight warmest August on record.

These impending challenges necessitate a broad, integrated perspective on community fire adaptation — a perspective that connects landscapes, deemphasizes jurisdictions, and brings together new partners. A perspective that looks beyond literal landscapes and integrates the cultural, economic and political landscapes that influence and shape our programs.

And finally, a perspective that balances short-term results with long-term resilience and sustainability. Community fire adaptation is not something we can achieve in years, or even decades. However, through building a broad base of support and common understanding of the goals, incremental changes in our behavior and perspectives can shift how we interact with the ecosystems that support us. And we can look forward to a time when fire roams the landscape, not as a disaster, or even a nuisance, but as an essential part of our environment and a key to our survival.

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