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 Tahoe.
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 West."
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.
But the 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 City, Nev.
"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.
More 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 environmentalists.
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.
But, if 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 camera."
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 road.
"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 everywhere."
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."
Now the 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 said.
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 craft.
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 mines.
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 legendary.
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?
An 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 flat.
"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.
The 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 lake.
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.
Higher 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 problem.
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.
He 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."
That tourism 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 logo.
"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."
But can tourism support wilderness? I asked him.
"That's 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 bat, hard.
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 resource-dependent tourism."
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 the Tongass.
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 heated discussion.
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 is wilderness.
"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 can too."
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 conversations.
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 just rhetoric."
"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."
Jon Christensen writes from Carson City, Nevada.
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