SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Nev. - They came from across the country and around the West to celebrate the shotgun wedding of tourism and the public lands.
The potential Lords
of the New West, the bosses of tourism agencies and industry
lobbying groups, and the managers of federal lands and parks,
arrived in limousines and chartered buses that wound their way up
the mountain from the Reno airport to the south shore of Lake
They came to declare a truce in their
many disputes over parks and concessions and access, and to
collaborate "to promote tourism and protect public lands in the
The unspoken issue was whether this
alliance could challenge, if not topple, the Lords of the Old West
- as writer Charles Wilkinson dubbed the ranching, logging and
mining interests that now dominate the federal lands. Economically,
those industries may be in decline. But politically they still rule
in the West, and the Clinton administration has been searching for
a way to counter them by enlisting the economically potent but
politically passive tourism industry.
talk wasn't about conflict.
"We propose to bury
the notion of "Them vs. Us." It's obsolete," said the invitation
from the Western States Tourism Policy Council, based in Carson
"This is the beginning of a dialogue
between two groups who scarcely know each other," said Tom Tait,
the dapper, chain-smoking executive director of the Nevada
Commission on Tourism, as he welcomed 419 participants to the first
Western Summit on Tourism and Public Lands.
than two groups, actually. When someone called for a show of hands,
numbers were about evenly divided between federal agency staff and
tourism businesses and lobbyists, with a smattering of
Missing were the West's
conservative, Republican congressmen, mayors and county
commissioners. Also missing were the people and corporations who
now dominate the public lands: the logging companies, the livestock
associations, the gold miners.
bureaucrats wore uniforms, the place would have glittered with
four-star generals. The Clinton administration clearly saw this
summit as an opportunity to woo the tourism and recreation
industry, the administration's only hope for a business
constituency in the West.
Though the meeting was
held in September, the Clinton team didn't use it to rally support
for the election, but to try to shift the political equilibrium in
the next Congress:
John Garamendi, deputy
secretary of the Interior, laid it on the line. "Let there be no
doubt," he told the audience. "We expect federal land managers to
be part of developing tourism in their locations to build a
constituency for preservation of public lands and build the economy
in rural areas."
Secretary of Agriculture Dan
Glickman said, "We often look at conflict, the so-called War for
the West. This conference shows we're moving into a new era. We
need to look at the opportunity side of the picture: recreation.
The most valuable thing taken from the public lands is with a
Not all the politicians came from D.C.
Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, a Democrat, is one of the Clinton
administration's few allies in top offices in the intermountain
West. He has a high stake in seeing that tourism beats out the
state's image as the last refuge of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and he
believes the political game can be won in the middle of the
"It's appropriate that we gather here at
Lake Tahoe, with its balance between consumption and protection,"
Miller told the crowd. "This is a balance we should strive for
He was in the
right place for such rhetoric. Lake Tahoe is a passable example of
the effort to walk the line between excessive use and preservation.
So after his speech, I sought out Rochelle Nason, executive
director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. Surprisingly, she said,
conflicts between crowding and protection are being addressed at
Lake Tahoe, though "for many years we had one of the most bitter
environmental battles in the country."
League has powerful allies, Nason said, including casino mogul
Steve Wynn, who owns a lakeside mansion and who was recently
appointed by the governor to the board of the Tahoe Regional
Planning Agency. Casino owners have realized that the mounting
problems at Lake Tahoe - especially the weekend crowds of day
visitors - discourage longer-term stays, she
The casinos around the lake now support a
fee for day visitors, a plan they opposed in the past for fear it
would deter them. They have backed bonds to pay for erosion control
and stream restoration and efforts to curb noisy personal water
Lake Tahoe's problems are obvious.
Visibility in the lake has been declining more than a foot a year
because of erosion from roads, construction, smoke, pollution and
sewage. Ninety-five percent of the Lake Tahoe basin is national
forest land - but the forests are a patchwork of dead and dying
beetle-invested, second-growth trees that grew after the basin was
clearcut for the nearby Comstock silver
The very rich and the very poor live
within sight of each other in dilapidated apartments and gated
enclaves that alternate along the shore. Weekend traffic jams are
Though the lake is a shimmering
mirror of the problems plaguing America's most popular public
lands, it is Grand Canyon, the most visited national park in the
West, that symbolizes the summit's central dilemma: Can tourism
preserve what makes public lands attractive?
Arizona tourism official bemoaned the strain his state's successful
marketing has put on Grand Canyon National Park, which attracted 5
million visitors in the last year, a million more than five years
ago. Despite that growth, the park's budget has remained
"I've never understood why all the income
from visitors doesn't go back into the parks instead of going into
"Uncle Sugar's' pocket," said James Host, a lobbyist for the
National Tour Association. "The national park system is crumbling
in front of us - $1.5 billion just to fix infrastructure."
A federal official put the burden back on the
industry. "It's hogwash to say we are loving the parks to death,"
said Roger Kennedy, the uniformed and beribboned director of the
National Park Service. "The places are going to be there. The
question is what are we going to do to make sure they're properly
maintained ... Naturally this will take ingenuity and tax dollars."
When the subject of an excise tax on outdoor
equipment came up, however, the tourism industry recoiled. "We
don't need a new tax," said Dave Humphreys, the director of the
Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
sense of the summit, as it is at Lake Tahoe, was that fees are the
answer. Here tourists find there are fees for everything, from air
and water to parking. Soon, visitors will pay fees to visit the
Desolation Wilderness in the granite mountains towering over the
Participants said they want to widen the
experiment that begins next year at 50 parks and recreation areas
when managers will be allowed to retain 100 percent of new fees to
improve recreation facilities and wildlife habitat, rather than
sending the money to Washington, D.C.
fees will lead to fewer visitors, according to the market mantra.
Charge more for popular places and some people will go to less
popular public lands. Reinvest money in upkeep, add clever
marketing and you've got a solution to the public-lands crowding
Over lunch, I heard this theory
expounded eloquently by John Poimiroo. Before becoming director of
the California Division of Tourism, Poimiroo worked for Tahoe ski
resorts, the Great America theme park, and the Curry Company, the
concessionaire in Yosemite National Park.
used Sausalito, Calif., just across the bay from San Francisco, as
a horrible example of what happens when you don't market.
"Sausalito decided they didn't want tourists,"
Poimiroo said. "So they didn't go after what they want. They still
get tourists. But not the ones they want. They get a lot of bikers.
They lost their art galleries and fine restaurants and have T-shirt
and ice cream shops now."
Poimiroo said the same
thing could happen in Colorado, which has slashed its tourism
budget. "Tourism has dropped 20 percent," he said. "They've fallen
off the face of the earth. We've gotten British skiers to fly over
Colorado and Utah to Lake Tahoe."
bosses would look to marketing to help protect public lands was not
surprising. But to hear the bosses of America's public lands join
the chorus was unsettling.
"We share customers
and I'd love to capitalize on the expertise in industry,"
undersecretary of agriculture Jim Lyons said later from the stage.
"We have a tremendous marketing opportunity in the 2002 Olympics to
showcase travel and tourism opportunities West-wide. My hope is
that our brand becomes recognized as a symbol of high quality
outdoor experiences," he said, holding up a sign with the words
"Visit US" superimposed on the U.S. Forest Service
"Recreation is going to be our business in
the future," said Lyons. By the year 2000, recreation will account
for $97.8 billion of the $130.7 billion generated by activities on
national forests, he said. Fish and wildlife generate $12.9
billion, minerals $10.1 billion, timber $3.5 billion and grazing
about $1 billion.
"It's not that mining and
logging and grazing won't be part of that future," said Lyons, "but
the highest and best use of the public lands is not extractive."
The Forest Service has a $1 billion backlog of
work that needs to be done on recreation facilities and trails,
said Lyons, directing a plea at the tourism industry to lobby
Congress for funding.
"We need you involved," he
said. "So far, recreation and tourism have been silent partners in
the political environment. We need people to stand up and speak up.
Policy and politics is a contact sport. We hope you'll get in and
rough it up."
Jay Watson, the Wilderness
Society's regional director for California and Nevada, seemed torn
by the messages. "I've heard that plea from Lyons and other
agencies before," he said. "I think they're trying to reach out, as
we are, frankly, to show it's in the best interest of the tourism
and recreation industries to weigh in; and they haven't."
Watson paused, holding back a little as if
seeking to stay with the upbeat spirit of the summit. "There are
very different bottom lines between the agencies, the Wilderness
Society and private industry," he said. "(Tourism) is a
profit-driven industry. But there is more common ground than
uncommon ground. The industry is not monolithic. And I appreciate
the big-tent approach for public lands."
tourism support wilderness? I asked him.
a big question - when silence and solitude collide with air tours,
for example," Watson said.
"The fact is the
economy of the West is changing ... Tourism has become much more of
an economic force. And if such an economic force were to weigh in
on protection, funding, priorities, it could turn the whole
debate," Watson said. "... It would be a powerful voice brought to
the table." For too long, he added, the tourist industry has been
quiet: "They've stepped up to the plate. They need to start
swinging the bat."
At the small working sessions
that are the hallmark of meetings such as these, any bat swinging
was very tentative. I was leaving the session on access, where the
most contentious issues such as the conflict between air tours over
parks never seemed to get enough votes to warrant discussion, when
an intense man in a corduroy jacket buttonholed me in the hall. He
turned out to represent the kind of tourism group that does swing a
Steve Behnke is the director of the
Alaska Institute for Sustainable Recreation and Tourism. It
represents 350 businesses involved in "sustainable tourism that
provides argument for protection and marketing - ecotourism. But we
don't use that term," he said with a laugh. "We call it
Behnke wanted me
know that the tourism businesses that he represents often go "head
to head" with the big cruise and helicopter tour operators, such as
those in the Alaska Visitors Association, the state's big tourism
lobby. Behnke said the helicopter tour operators are pushing to
keep 150 landing sites in wilderness areas in the Tongass National
Forest. "We could live with some of them," he said, but not all.
Behnke's group formed after the Exxon Valdez oil
spill, when a core group realized there was "no spokesman for
resource-dependent tourism." He said his group was often in the
middle between environmental groups and big business tourism.
Member businesses tack a dollar or two a day on to each visitor's
bill for a donation to local conservation groups. The small
100-passenger cruise ships, whale watching boats, hunting guides,
sea kayaking and river rafting businesses that he represents also
"need access to land," he said.
"We've lost 55
percent of the bays, coves and anchorages around Juneau, mainly
because of logging, but also to wilderness." To stop the loss of
access, the group had helped end the long-term timber contracts on
While Behnke and I talked, Brad
Barber, the Utah governor's state planning coordinator, was pacing
the hall with a cellular phone, arguing loudly about a range of
subjects: The new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument,
state trust lands, the Department of Interior, White House, and Ken
Rait of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. As soon as one call
was done, Barber quickly dialed another and launched into another
When he hung up, I asked him
to talk about the new monument:
"This is a huge
tourism resource, no doubt about it," said Barber, "It'll
definitely be a draw. Given the notoriety, you can believe people
will want to come see it and if we're not prepared that could be a
nightmare. We need to get it figured out before the Winnebagos show
up. The elderly couple in Iowa with the Winnebago probably won't go
to a wilderness area, but they do look for America's newest
national monument and there's nothing there now - 80 percent of it
"We were displeased with the way
it was done ... but now my job is to become a player," Barber
continued. "We'll push for state and local government to have input
in that management plan. We have a lot of things maybe the federal
agencies don't have. We can be a great asset and do something
unique and beneficial."
Barber said he hoped the
management plan for the monument will revive the "Escalante
ecoregion concept," an attempt to come up with a local compromise.
Local residents are worried that the monument will "close down coal
mining" without any guarantee of jobs in tourism, Barber said. He
would like to see "an aggressive and innovative plan for managing
visitors' in the monument.
"Just as Ken Rait is
worried about coal miners ruining this area," he said, "tourists
When all was said
and done, the Western Summit on Tourism and Public Lands wasn't bad
for a politically staged wedding. There seemed a lot of good will
invested by all, even in the most critical
The final recommendations were
mostly cliches. "The box must be exploded," the facilitators told
us in the final session. "We need to communicate better."
After that, a motivational speaker handed out
kazoos and persuaded bureaucrats and pinstriped tourism lobbyists
to parade together on stage while the audience chanted: "Don't be
shy, don't be gallant, go ahead and toot your talent."
But there was more: Nevada's Lt. Gov. Lonnie
Hammargren mounted the stage with a guitar and started singing an
ode to "Nye County and the Sagebrush Rebellion" to the tune of
"Don't Fence Me In."
"Oh give me land, BLM land,
under starry skies above ... Don't fence me in," Hammargren belted,
as the crowd nervously guffawed.
Hammargren has a
reputation as the crazy uncle in the state cabinet, and smiles
turned to strained grimaces on the faces of other Nevada officials
as he sang on.
"Let me ride through the open Nye
County that I love ... Don't fence me in. Just turn me loose, let
me drive my Caterpillar "neath the Western skies ... let me blade a
road out yonder till I see the mountains rise ... don't trust the
federals, and I can't stand fences. Don't fence me in."
Hammargren demonstrated in his inimitable way
that this alliance has not transformed the cultural landscape,
although those in the hall argued that the latest Sagebrush
Rebellion is over.
"We need to stop worrying
about who controls the land," said Nevada's Gov. Miller, "and worry
about how it's managed. We need to strive for real solutions, not
"That fight is over, even in
Nevada," agreed Ann Morgan, the state director of the Nevada Bureau
of Land Management. "This is the future," she said, gesturing
around the showroom where the summit was held. "It's not a
discussion about who should manage the public lands, but how they
should be managed." n
Christensen writes from Carson City, Nevada.