My Turn: Economics vs. the environment |

My Turn: Economics vs. the environment

Three of the many projects currently up for consideration by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency are similar in that they are touted as providing improvement for the local economy in spite of causing significant negative impacts on the environment.

In reality, the primary purpose of these projects is to increase the financial gain of their owners. These projects are for expansions at the Heavenly Mountain Resort, the North Tahoe Marina and the Villas at Harborside. Although the projects will result in some economic “trickle down” for local businesses, employees and residents of the Basin, the local value of the tourist dollar resulting from these and similar projects is vastly overstated and only a small fraction of the total spent.

In the first place, very little of the money the tourist spends in the Basin stays here. For example, almost everything the local employees and residents buy is obtained, either directly or indirectly, from sources outside the Basin. Of course, some local businesses may profit, but they too must obtain their supplies, merchandise and equipment from suppliers external to the area. Also, much of the workforce cannot afford to live in the Basin, so their paychecks are cashed and the money spent elsewhere.

In other words, almost everything we, the residents and workforce, eat, wear, use or otherwise purchase, benefits some economy located outside of the Basin. The question is: Is the small fraction of the tourism dollar that remains here worth the environmental damage that results?

Over the years this outflow of the tourism dollar has increased significantly as local businesses have been squeezed out by corporations that are headquartered elsewhere. This has two major impacts on the Basin: First, corporate decisions are seldom made with any in-depth consideration for either the short- or long-range impacts on the environment; and second, profits that once were realized and spent locally by local business owners are dispersed to stockholders all over the world.

As a consequence, I believe that it is extremely important that TRPA’s Board of Governors and other governing bodies adopt more realistic assessments of the economic worth of projects, particularly when the project requires the environmental degradation of our irreplaceable national treasure.

I realize that this concept creates dilemmas for the decision makers. They are pressured and coerced by applicants who aver that their projects are the result of “public demand,” or are vital to the economic survival of the community, and that they are worth every old-growth tree chopped down, or every scenic view that is eliminated, or every foot of water clarity that is reduced in the lake. Sure, the federal government pours millions of dollars into the Basin to “repair and restore” the damage that is caused by excessive development and tourism, but each of the permitted degradations drives another nail in Tahoe’s coffin.

As far as TRPA’s Board of Governors is concerned, its mandate is simply “to preserve, restore and enhance the unique natural and human environment of the Lake Tahoe region, now and in the future.” That is, the board is responsible to see that the unequaled environment of the lake and Basin is preserved. No statement in TRPA’s Compact either encourages or allows the board or staff to decide that “economic improvement” is more important than environmental degradation.

Neither is TRPA charged with protecting and enhancing the business interests of the Basin. This is a concept that has escaped the TRPA staff and a number of members of the board (as demonstrated by the Feb. 28 hearing on the Heavenly master plan) and it needs to be corrected. It is neither appropriate nor justifiable that the “unique natural and human environment of the Lake Tahoe region” be frittered away to satisfy the “bottom lines,” greed and ego-gratification of a few.

Note: On March 28, the TRPA Board of Governors will have a meeting at the North Tahoe Community Conference Center in Kings Beach to a) consider approving the Villas at Harborside project; and b) reconsider a decision made at the Feb. 28 meeting on the Heavenly Mountain Resort project. All persons interested in the future of Lake Tahoe and the Basin are encouraged to attend.

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