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Tahoe Summit Backs Efforts to Clear the Air - and Water

For more than a century, vacationers have come to this alpine lake, stunningly set in a mountain-ringed basin high in the Sierra Nevada, to gaze down at the startling clarity of its cobalt-blue waters.

But those very waters are now threatened by civilization's embrace. Some 30 years ago, the water was clear enough to see 105 feet down. Today a white dish lowered into the lake can be seen only to a depth of 70 feet, and water clarity is disappearing at a foot and a half a year.

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Algae fed by sediment runoff and byproducts of a postwar construction boom have clouded the water. Wetlands and streams that filtered water before it reached the lake were largely destroyed, and forests are filled with dying trees, raising the risk of wildfire.

Similar storylines are playing out in other recreational centers throughout the West, now beset by the problems of urban life - from traffic to air pollution. But possible solutions will receive an unusually high-level airing at a summit here this weekend.

The Lake Tahoe Presidential Forum will bring top federal, state, and local officials including President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to the lake's shores. But beyond workshops and photo ops, the summit is intended to highlight a case study in cooperation. Where property owners, developers, and environmentalists once spoke to each other only through lawsuits, they now sit together to plan everything from mass-transit systems to ski lifts.

"They have come to understand what a lot of other such communities have not yet understood - that in order to sustain their economy, they need to protect the natural environment," says Jim Lyons, undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment and a key organizer of the Tahoe summit.

Indeed, the big business players at Tahoe - ski resort and casino operators - are now fervent backers of restraints on growth and steps to restore the lake. Facing stiff competition from resorts elsewhere, they know the beauty of the setting is their competitive advantage.

But this consensus has not come easily - or quickly. Tahoe has long been the site for pitched battles over the impact of growth associated with tourism.

To help to protect the basin, its main authorities - California, Nevada, and the federal government (which owns 75 percent of the lands through national forests) - set up the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) in 1969 and strengthened it in 1980. The agency's regional plan barred homeowners from building on environmentally sensitive areas, tried to restore streams and other wetlands, and put a lid on growth.

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The agency was backed, and pushed, by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, conservationists who mobilized national support for the Tahoe cause. But the TRPA was hit with rival lawsuits from groups including an association of property owners who argued it would deprive them of their property rights. The plan was revised in 1987, yet the battles continued.

"Under the litigation and constant war situation, nobody was getting anything - the economy wasn't improving and the environment wasn't improving," says Steve Teshara, an official of the Lake Tahoe Gaming Alliance and a former official of the property-owners group. "It was gridlock."

THE breakthrough came about six years ago. When the sides met to tackle Tahoe's transport woes, business owners and environmentalists found common ground in creating a mass-transit system, combining private-sector resources, and seeking federal money.

Since then, the spirit has deepened. The tacky strip motels that line the lake's southern shore are being replaced with stylish resorts that have fewer rooms, and developers have agreed to restore lost streams and wetlands. "There truly has been a change," says Jim Baegte, director of the TRPA.

Now, regional players hope to attract federal support at the summit. "The government has a lot to offer but we do not have the coordination," says Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, who conceived the summit. "A year ago ... there were too many people in the water paddling their canoes, but all going in different directions."

TRPA officials say they need $300 to $400 million of federal money for the regional plan. Some local organizers are making a plea for more money, but Senator Reid and others are avoiding the money talk. "The days of throwing money at problems are very limited," says Mr. Lyons.

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