Mary Ellen: “Today we are going to ski the course. We’re going out the freeway to the water tank and then some fun stuff on the way back.”
Ezra: Mary Ellen Benier is the head coach of Tahoe Truckee High School Nordic Ski Team. We’re at the Auburn Ski Club where they’re gearing up for their last big race of the year. It’s February.
[Sound of skiers]
Ezra: The teens live about half an hour from Lake Tahoe. It’s not always a beautiful snowy day like this. We had to reschedule our interview a few times because there was no snow for so long.
[Sound of skiers stopping and then Mary Ellen critiquing]
Mary Ellen: “Bring your hands in like this.”
TWIN: “Yeah, I know it’s a habit.”
Mary Ellen: “And think of that elbow thing we were talking about the other day.”
Ezra: Twins Ben and Evan Anderson are on the team. They’re 15 and say the changes in snow often keep them from practicing and competing. Here’s Evan.
Evan: “In eighth grade, which was like two or three years ago in 2017 we had like a huge year we had like 13 snow days so. And then the past years have been pretty dry. So, they've moved races back and we haven't really skied until after like December, now we're starting to ski in January and stopping in March.”
Ezra: But something else has riled the student athletes up. The fact that their representative in Congress Tom McClintock doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change. Jenna Elliott was on the team.
Jenna: “The team as a group wrote a letter to our congressman and he wrote back a few months later it just kind of dismissing it.”
Ezra: We’ll have more on McClintock later on. But the students say they want him to support policies that positively impact the environment. Things like stopping oil and gas exploration and increasing green energy options. Here’s a bit of what Congressman Tom McClintock sent back.
Jenna: “Dear Jenna thank you for contacting me contacting me regarding global climate change. I firmly believe that the United States should not be. Should not hamstring its economy in an attempt to combat global warming the earth's climate is constantly changing and has been and has been since the planet formed over four billion years ago.”
Ezra: “What was going on inside of you when he told you that?”
Jenna: “I mean I was just kind of angry. I mean it's his job to represent us and the needs of the district and the people who live here as well as just keeping in mind like what's best for the country as a whole. And that that can't be just ignoring what is obviously a massive problem.”
Dan: “These aren’t just theories anymore.”
Stacy: “I don’t want the snow to go away.”
Simon: “Yes, Tahoe will change.”
Mary Ellen: “I kind of feel like that endangered pika.”
Don: “Tahoe doesn’t control climate change it’s a victim of it.”
Ezra: From Capital Public Radio ... this is TahoeLand.
Laurel: “: It always snowed by the third weekend in September, but that doesn’t happen anymore.”
McClintock: “I want to see our forests restored. So, Tahoe doesn’t burn the way Paradise did.”
Maddie: “Chasing the snow is a huge part.”
Devin: “It’s about the lake that’s why everyone is here.”
Jesse: “There are a lot of green lakes, there aren’t very many blue ones.”
Ezra: I’m Ezra David Romero.
This squabble between the teens and Congressman McClintock echoes what I’ve heard over and over again while reporting in Tahoe. The students feel that if 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, why isn’t McClintock acknowledging this and doing more about it?
When it comes to politics Tahoe is a blue island in a sea of red. At least it is on the California side of the lake. One thing that caught my attention while spending time there in the last year was that people who you wouldn’t expect are getting into the political game. And they’re doing this because of the climate crisis.
But don’t worry we’re not going to get too in the weeds when it comes to politics. This episode is all about seeing the lake differently. What if we thought of Lake Tahoe as part of our identity instead of just a place we visit?
Welcome to TahoeLand.
[Music plays for a bit and ends]
Ezra: Devin Middlebrook was 29 when he decided to jump into politics because of climate chan. He’s from South Lake, but he felt like politicians in DC didn’t care about what’s happening on the lake.
Devin: “Our voice often gets drowned out at that level and not taken serious because we are such a small portion of the larger district. But that's not stopping us from acting here locally.”
Ezra: Devin ran for South Lake Tahoe City Council on the platform of climate change. And it worked. He took office in 2018.
Devin: “There really wasn't anyone on an elected official at the city that was really championing for the environment that was raising the alarms that were trying to push things forward and it was to the point it was like someone's got to do it.”
Ezra: Since then he’s made climate change a top priority in their strategic plan. That includes everything from a pledge to use 100 percent renewable energy to large solar projects. And even an energy action plan for each part of the city. And look he thinks differently about Tahoe than the average politician.
Devin: “I think it would be amazing to have South Lake Tahoe be carbon neutral. And really we could actually become a carbon sink and absorb because we have our forests because we have our environment we can actually store carbon and and remove carbon from that more carbon from the atmosphere than we're producing.”
Ezra: But something that Devin recognizes is that are aspects of climate change that Tahoe can’t fix.
Devin: “But on the other side it's about being able to adapt to climate change because while we play our part and we have our peace there's a lot of other things going on in the planet that we can't control. So being ready for the changes we know are coming.”
Ezra: Devin wasn’t the first and he’s not alone when it comes to running for office under the banner of climate change. In fact, there’s a whole group of grassroots activists dedicated to getting people in office locally.
One of them is Bonnie Turnbull. She was elected to the South Lake Tahoe School board in 2016.
Bonnie: “I was brought up with the idea you clean up your mess. And I looked at my own daughter who was in high school at the time and I'm thinking this is what we're leaving you. I don't want to be responsible for that. So I owe it to you. It felt imperative that I do everything I could to protect her future and that in climate change is one of the biggest impacts I seek in her future.”
Ezra: Bonnie understands the big picture but understands there a simple things we can do in schools, like transitioning to LED lights.
Bonnie: “I feel like part of my job is to keep our eyes on this and I would like our district and I would say the board supports that we only we use only as much energy as we can produce. Carbon neutral.”
Ezra: Bonnie inspired Nick Exline to do the same with public utilities. Three years ago he ran for a board seat on the South Tahoe Public Utility District. But he didn’t win.
Nick: “I was warned, repeatedly repeatedly don't just talk about climate change. But that wasn't my end. I suppose in that 2016 my my vision was not to win. My vision was to get people to talk about climate change and use that as my format to allow it to happen because the utility district that I was running for was the biggest public user of energy in the area.”
Ezra: Two years later Nick won. Since then cities and agencies around the region signed 100 percent renewable resolutions. His main goal now is to transition the utility district to more renewable energy.
He’s also focused on wildfires. He doesn’t want a blaze like the Camp Fire to ignite in Tahoe.
Nick: “because you know in the near term the greatest threat we face as a community here in Southlake as a result of climate change is fire.”
Ezra: Okay, so there’s clearly this tension in Tahoe. Locals are running for office because they feel disconnected from the people that represent them in Washington. At least when it comes to climate change.
But are McClintock’s views really that different from what locals want? I wanted to understand this. So, I made an appointment to meet with him.
[Sound of door opening and bell]
Ezra: “: Hey”
Assistant: “Come on in.:
Ezra: “How’s it going? I’m Ezra Romero.”
Assistant: “Are you Mr. Romero?”
Assistant: “Hey, good to meet you.”
Ezra: “Nice to meet you.”
Assistant: “Hey, here’s Mr. Romero.”
McClintock: “Hi, how do you do.”
Ezra: I’m at Congressman Tom McClintock’s office in Roseville.
E: zra: “Having a good day?”
McClintock: “I had a blowout on the freeway so i lost a half hour that I didn’t have to lose today.”
Ezra: McClintock’s territory covers a huge portion of the Sierra Nevada. It runs from Sequoia National Park up past Tahoe. Because so many people I interviewed are mad about his views on climate change, I decided to ask him about this.
Ezra: “: They feel like that you don't believe in it and they're wondering why.”
McClintock: “Well, I do. Come on. The climate has been changing for four and a half billion years. Anything that is consistent is that the climate is changing. It always changes.”
Ezra: And so I found this interesting McClintock doesn’t think he is a climate change denier. Even though many of his constituents feel like he consistently votes against clean energy and other policies that benefit the environment. Such as the Climate Action Now Act, which would've required the President to commit to parts of the Paris Climate Agreement.
But because of everything people in Tahoe have told me, I asked him the same question twice.
Ezra: “: So what's your response to them when they say because they're like pretty vehement like this guy doesn't believe in climate change. But you're saying you do.”
Mcclintock: “Well that's that's some mantra for them. Where we differ is to what extent this is natural forces and to what extent this is man made. To say that carbon dioxide you see human produced carbon dioxide is driving all this I think is a very very far reach.”
Ezra: But is it a very far reach? Scientists working in the Tahoe basin say having these beliefs about climate is pretty much bogus. Let’s take a break from my conversation with McClintock to go back to one I had earlier in the podcast It was with Dan McEvoy and Ben Hatchett. They’re scientists with the Desert Research Institute in Reno. They study snow. I snowshoed with them at Donner Summit.
Can you say that humans are not causing the climate crisis? Here’s Dan and Ben.
Dan: “I don’t think you can believe or not believe in it anymore because there’s so much research that has proven that these aren’t just theories anymore. And so I think if you if you kind of naysay you basically don't believe in science at that point.”
Benjamin: “ Whether or not you believe in climate change or not I might believe in the Easter Bunny but I accept gravity. It's not about a belief it's about an acceptance of a reality of the physical universe that we exist in.”
Ezra: Ok, So we know that McClintock doesn’t believe humans have a role in the climate crisis and he’s opposed to things like the Paris Climate Agreement. But he says he believes in a certain kind of climate change. And if that’s true. What’s he doing about it?
McClintock: “Well I want to see our forest restored so that Tahoe doesn't burn the way paradise did last year. That is a grave concern. This has been one of my top priorities since I was first elected.”
Ezra: People I spoke to with CALFIRE and the Forest Service say McClintock has helped fast track forest thinning projects that could help prevent a fire from spreading in the Tahoe basin.
McClintock: “An untended forest is just like an untended garden of an untended forest will grow and grow until it chokes itself to death. It will be consumed by disease pestilence drought and ultimately catastrophic fire. Why can't we agree on that.
Ezra: There is this disconnect between some locals and their representatives in Congress. So how does someone like McClintock keep getting elected? Here to help me breakdown voter demographics in Tahoe is podcast producer Sally Schilling
Sally: Hi Ezra.
Ezra: What is the political makeup of Tahoe?
Sally: Well, this was a little tricky to figure out, because the lake spans two states and five counties: Placer and El Dorado on the California side, and Washoe, Douglas and Carson City County on the Nevada side.
Ezra: Carson City-County?
Sally: Yup. It’s a weird name, I know. It threw me off a little when I was researching voter data.
Looking at the voter registration numbers, there are certainly more registered Republicans than Democrats in all of these counties by a good margin. In both California and Nevada.
Ezra: California is known as a very blue state. Nevada is traditionally known as a red state, though it’s starting to turn blue. Democrat Jacky Rosen defeated Republican incumbent Dean Heller for his Nevada Senate seat. Making the two senators from Nevada both Democrats.
Sally: And Nevada elected its first Democrat to the governor’s office since 1994. And yes, California is known as very blue, especially on the coast, but inland and up in the rural areas in the east, it’s known to be more conservative.
When you look at these counties around Tahoe as a whole, they trend red or at least slightly red. But if you zoom into the communities that surround the lake on the California side, they are mostly blue.
Ezra: I said at the beginning of the episode I thought maybe the fact that people live near the lake and are tied to their ecosystem has them voting more for more environmental or blue politicians.
Sally: That could be, but voters are complicated and there’s so many issues, it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. But another factor is money.
I talked to Derek Kauneckis [coo-neck-iss] about this, he’s an associate professor at Ohio University. He used to do research on environmental policy at the Univ. of Nevada Reno.
He says Tahoe is becoming an enclave of the wealthy and that can maybe tell you something about their attitudes about climate change.
DEREK 1: [00:27:08] Generally people with more money and higher levels of education are willing to accept climate change as human caused. [00:27:14][6.3}[00:27:40] As we mentioned Zuckerberg just bought a house up there recently so it's becoming an enclave of the of the ultra wealthy as well.
Sally: But then again, he says there are wealthy Californians who buy houses on the Nevada side to avoid California taxes. They are typically conservative. So this is all to say there are definitely more blue pockets around Lake Tahoe but it’s really a mixed bag politically.
Ezra: But this doesn’t necessarily say how people feel about ‘Keeping Tahoe Blue,’ right?
Sally: Yes, what’s interesting about Tahoe is that no matter the political leaning, Derek says people generally seem to agree these days with ‘Keeping Tahoe Blue’.. Or clear:
DEREK 2: [00:17:17] So. Everything at Lake Tahoe revolves around Lake clarity [00:17:23][6.0][00:16:35] Generally when you talk to people including the business community they will say that the environmental policies have worked here. We value the lake. We recognize the value of the lake. They've worked. I wish there was another way we could have done it but they've somewhat worked [00:16:53][18.5]
Ezra: Yeah for business, it’s their livelihood. It’s why people live and visit and work in Tahoe.
Sally: Yes, but it wasn’t always this way where everyone understood the need to protect clarity. At first, businesses weren’t happy about having to spend more money on preventing their pollution from going into the lake. For example, it was expensive for logging companies to make sure all their water was clean before running into the lake.
It’s kind of what McClintock is touching on too. The idea that environmental policies can be hard on businesses.
But after decades of protecting Lake Tahoe and reports showing improvement on lake clarity, Derek told me even the businesses got on board with preserving lake clarity.
Ezra: So he’s saying this is kind of a unique situation where we can see that we’re improving the environment in Tahoe. We’re measuring lake clarity and can see with our own eyes whether these environmental protections are helping.
Sally: And Derek says this is what makes Tahoe clarity such an interesting case study. It’s easy to understand lake clarity. Whereas climate change can be hard to wrap your head around exactly how it’s impacting your life.
And on top of that, this is an environmental policy that is actually being linked to a growing economy.
A study out of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire looked at home prices around 60 lakes in NOrthern Wisconsin. They found that for every 3 feet of lake clarity, home prices around the lake would increase anywhere from 8 to 32 thousand dollars.
Ezra: That’s interesting. Maybe this is the case activists need to make to conservative politicians like McClintock: how protecting the environment and addressing climate change is good for the economy.
Sally: Perhaps. Though it’s hard to say if that would change his perspective. Many conservatives are holding the line against climate policies.
Ezra: Alright, well thanks for talking politics with us Sally.
Ezra: We’ve been talking about politics a lot. But now let’s look at people finding ways around their elected officials.
Sally is going to tell this part of the story. .
Sally: I want to talk about the ‘Rights of Nature’ movement..
Activists in this movement wanted to see their local environment protected, and were tired of poilitcians not having their backs. So they l: what if we gave our ecosystems the same rights that people?
Sigal Samuel is a staff writer for Vox who has written about this.
SIGAL 2: [00:02:44]: we're just really not used to the idea of nature having legal personhood rights but we're just sort of all used to the idea that corporations do. And so arguably you know it makes just as much sense to grant those rights to a river or a forest. [00:02:59][15.9]
Sally: So can a lake like Tahoe have its own rights? Well there is the recent case of this was in Lake Eerie. People living near the lake saw their drinking water cut off because of pollution and algae in the lake. They wanted to make sure the algae blooms wouldn’t come back and harm them. So they created a ‘Lake Erie bill of rights.’ Voters passed it in a special election earlier this year.
SIGAL 1: [00:01:34] They sort of came up with this notion that Lake Erie could maybe be granted this sort of legal rights that we normally reserve for a person. [00:01:45][10.3]
Sally: This could allow people sue on behalf of the lake, but the bill of rights is being challenged in court. Lake Erie isn’t the first case of legal rights being granted to an ecosystem. And since then, Ecuador has enshrined the rights of nature into its constitution, and other governments around the world have granted legal rights to forests, rivers and even a type of wild rice.
Sigal says the movement is in the early stages, so it’s hard to say how much impact it will have, but she says it’s spreading a sort of paradigm shift in how many people think about nature:
SIGAL 5: [00:05:43] What the activists and the rights of nature or movement want us to do is start really shifting how we think about Instead of viewing it as. Property they want us to view it as something that has rights in and of itself rights that we can't just come along and take whenever we feel like it. That's a really really non capitalist non market based way of thinking about the environment that's very new for many of us. Most of us I would say in the modern western world. [00:06:38][54.7]
[Sound of hiking and nearby streams]
Ezra: T: his idea of Lake Tahoe being a person isn’t actually that new. It’s kind of like how the idigenous people of Tahoe view the lake. I’m talking about the Washoe tribe. They value Tahoe as you would a friend or family member, instead of just as a resource.
E: zra: “You know on this side of the lake the water is so clear.”
Ezra: It's so beautiful and clear and like just perfect.”
Ezra: Helen Fillmore and I are hiking on the east side of Lake Tahoe to a place called Skunk Harbor. It’s a challenging hike, but the water here is turquoise and stunning. It’s also known for chipmunks.
E: zra: “Oh, there's a chipmunk too
Helen: “They're everywhere. Chipmunk in our language is utsilee.”
Ezra: Skunk Harbor is important to the Washoe people because parts of it are managed by the tribe. It’s one of the few places they feel like they have ownership of around the lake. Even though they have thousands of years of history in the Tahoe basin.
Ezra: “: So what does the lake mean to you?”
Helen: “Oh everything. Everything. The lake itself is it's what gave us life it gives us life. G t's hard to not even. It's hard to not get emotional thinking about that. But the lake is. It's what sustained us. It's what's this sustained us for thousands of years.”
Ezra: The tribe used the lake during the summer as a haven from the heat and as a fishing and gathering place.
Helen: “And I say this all the time, but if people thought about the lake how our people think about the lake, how we're raised to think about the lake, we wouldn't be suffering a lot of the issues that we're currently suffering. If they thought about our homelands the way we value our homelands then we wouldn't be talking about mitigating climate change because it wouldn't be an issue at all.
Ezra: Helen says Native Americans just want to be part of the conversation. She thinks there traditions can help out with modern day issues, like climate change.
H: elen: “Again we've got thousands of years of experience on this land and what it takes to maintain it for future generations. And so if the land's not healthy we're not healthy we're not healthy. The land's not healthy and so there's a literal connection within our own understanding of the lake and of the basin and of the all of the plants and animals that depend on it. Yeah yeah.”
Ezra: So here we are again back at the lake. It’s why everyone is here.
For me Tahoe is spiritual. There’s this moment when you walk towards the lake and you reach the place where land meets water. Something about this simple moment changes me everytime. Perhaps it’s just the expanse, the gentle wind, the birds in the air and the lapping of water.
But the peace that comes over me and the feeling that I am part of Tahoe is what Helen’s alluding to. It’s what’s worth preserving and its what’s remained as Tahoe’s gone through so much change. And it's what’s at risk of disappearing as the global climate crisis worsens. That’s why there are so many people working to keep Tahoe from going down a dark path. But it’s still unclear if enough is being done.
Ezra: This question is enough being done is something I will ask many of the people you’ve met in this podcast. We recorded a live conversation in Tahoe. That’s next week.
And per usual, don't forget to stick around after the credits for our Tahoe Tidbit … this time, we look at the history of presidents coming to Tahoe.
Ezra: TahoeLand is edited by Nick Miller. Sally Schilling is our podcast producer. Our Digital Editor is Chris Hagan. Kacey Sycamore is collecting your questions about Tahoe and answering them. Emily Zentner is TahoeLand’s data reporter.
Our web site is built by Renee Thompson, Veronika Nagy and Katie Kidwell.
Linnea Edmeier is the executive editor. And our associate producer is Gabriela Fernandez.
Our music is by artist Charlesthefirst. He’s from Tahoe.
To make sure you don’t miss any episodes, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Check out our website capradio.org/tahoeland for videos, photos, additional stories and more.
I’m Ezra David Romero…. Thanks for listening to TahoeLand... from Capital Public Radio.
[PRESIDENTIAL HAIL TO THE CHIEF BYTE]
Gabriela: Every year, a unique political event is held in South Lake. It’s called the Lake Tahoe Summit. Local representatives from Congress typically attend. This year, the governors from both Nevada and California showed up.
But when it comes to presidents … they don’t always represent.
I’m Gabriela Fernandez, and I’m a producer with TahoeLand.
There have been 23 summits, but a US President has only attended twice.
Of course, they were keynote speakers.
In 1997 President Bill Clinton spoke:
CLINTON: “By working together and understanding what our forebears knew centuries ago, we cannot divide our our quest for prosperity from our obligation to hand nature, god’s great gift to us, on down to the generations”
Gabriela: At the time, Clinton had only touched on the idea of climate change, but in recent years it has become the key topic of discussion.
To commemorate the summit’s 20th anniversary, President Barack Obama made an appearance in 2016 … and he actually spoke about climate change.
OBAMA: “You know, when scientists first told us our planet was changing because of human activity it was received as a bombshell, but in a way we shouldn’t have been surprised. The most important changes are always the changes made by us.”
Gabriela: Tahoe has gotten attention from other presidents in years past.
When Washington DC did not support making Tahoe a national park, in the 1960s, the governors and lawmakers of California and Nevada got together to approve a bi-state compact. This agreement ultimately created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Which focuses on preservation in the region. When it was approved in 1969, President Richard Nixon, Governor Ronald Reagan, and Governor Paul Laxalt of Nevada, all Republicans, had signed off on it.
This year, the summit was in August … and there was still somewhat a bipartisan spirit. For instance, Senator Dianne Feinstein had this to say about Congressman Tom McClintock
Feinstein: “Congressman, I want to thank you so much for your care and concern of this lake. I think you have helped forage the bi partisan partnership which exists here today.”
Gabriela: From the White House to the governor’s office, republicans to democrats, for decades, political leaders have professed their commitment to protecting the Tahoe Basin … regardless of political party.
For Tahoeland… I’m Gabriela Fernandez.