By Joanne S. Marchetta

Celebrations have taken on many new forms since the start of social distancing. Birthday parties have become processions of cars parading past a celebrant’s home—people honking and waving, tossing candy and small gifts (for later disinfecting, then enjoying). And huge international celebrations like the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this week have moved online, giving room for individuals to celebrate and explore the conservation movement in new ways.

The pandemic is hurting so many right now that chances for celebration are much-needed bright spots. And the lengths to which we must go to celebrate accentuate how deeply we care. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Week, might having millions of individuals pick up trash, plant trees, write poems, or just watch an earth science documentary have a greater impact than a typical Earth Week? We find ourselves in a transformative time, so anything is possible. Around the nation and the globe, transformation and resilience are words coming to the fore about what the aftermath of this pandemic could bring. So it makes sense to be celebrating the environmental movement that changed a nation a half-century ago.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency commemorates its own 50th anniversary this year as well, and it’s no surprise we share a birthday with Earth Day. The 1960s were a transformative and tumultuous time. Population, disposable income, and car ownership were growing like never before. Freeway construction abounded and in some places industrial waste, air pollution, and water degradation were out of control.

Lake Tahoe’s pristine ecosystem was no better off. The region was facing intense development pressure. Marshes and meadows were being bulldozed and filled. Plans were afoot for a metropolitan city that would ring the lake with a massive bridge over Emerald Bay. The rising cries for environmental protection were victorious in the Tahoe Basin and in December 1969, the bi-state compact creating TRPA was signed into federal law.

As Earth Day helped launch the environmental movement and the enactment of critical laws like the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, TRPA’s bi-state compact forged a lasting partnership among local governing bodies, federal, state and tribal land managers, and the public. The creation began a decades-long transformation of Lake Tahoe into a place where development could continue, balanced with protections for the incredible natural resources that Lake Tahoe has to offer. A place where recreation could flourish while the associated impacts were minimized. Looking back over five decades, there were milestones that marked significant progress for Tahoe.

TRPA’s first Regional Plan capped growth in the Basin, halted major pollution, and prohibited building on sensitive lands. The bridge over Emerald Bay never materialized. TRPA adopted environmental standards to measure and maintain the health of the region. We set in place a growth control system still working today that ensures development only continues apace of environmental improvements. To address urban runoff, we promote stormwater management practices on properties to reverse the decline of Lake Tahoe’s famed water clarity.

The 1990s saw the creation of the Environmental Improvement Program, a comprehensive ecosystem restoration initiative involving more than 75 public and private organizations. Partners have implemented more than 700 projects bringing more than $2 billion into the region’s economy. In 1999, TRPA instituted a ban on carbureted two-stroke marine engines that instantly decimated hydrocarbon levels in the lake. In 2008, we collaborated with multiple agencies and private marinas to require watercraft inspections to prevent the introduction of aquatic invasive species like zebra and quagga mussels. And we have begun addressing wildfire risk on a landscape scale, again in lockstep with fire protection and land management agencies.

Collaboration lies at the core of TRPA’s work. The bi-state framework that created us also creates partnerships that have served our communities well and that will continue to protect Lake Tahoe into the future. As TRPA commemorates the progress of 50 years of collaboration, we hold fast knowing emerging challenges loom large. The underpinnings of the updated 2012 Regional Plan are sustainability, transforming town centers into walkable and bikeable destinations, and building resilience against new and existing threats. The Regional Plan provides the framework for TRPA to continue to improve air and water quality, manage the complex effects of climate change, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, protect against new aquatic invasive species, and help address a shortage of affordable housing.

To commemorate our 50th anniversary, TRPA is making adjustments too. We have postponed public celebratory events and are using social media to tell our story. A special anniversary issue of Tahoe In Depth is planned for May. And we’re continuing to serve the community with regular business operations online. Like so many birthday occasions today, we will celebrate from afar.

We’re grateful for the health care workers, public safety officers, grocery store employees, utilities and refuse staffers, and others who are making it possible for us to survive the COVID crisis. We’re stronger when we work together. The actions we take today will ensure Lake Tahoe is vibrant and healthy for TRPA’s and Earth Day’s 100th anniversary.

-Joanne S. Marchetta is the executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.