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Lake Tahoe goes green

In its quest to become “the number one green airport in the country,” Lake Tahoe Airport in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., is proving that environmental and economic concerns do not have to be at odds.

The relationship between the airport and environmentalists has been a decades-long journey from conflict to cooperation. Legal battles related to the environmental impact of operations at Lake Tahoe drove the airfield to the brink of closure before the city council and airport manager decided the only way to move forward was to work together with former foes toward environmentally responsible economic growth. Through a series of “green” initiatives, the airport has won support from environmentalists, revitalized its facilities, and positioned itself for a rebound in general aviation operations.

“It’s an exciting place,” said airport manager Rick Jenkins. When the airport was engaged in court battles in the early 1990s, the site looked as if its future were in jeopardy, he said, but this environmentally friendly overhaul has given the airport new life. “We’re kind of like a phoenix, I think.”

The airport’s proximity to Lake Tahoe places it at the intersection of industry and conservation. It was built in 1958 along the Upper Truckee River, in what was later classified as a Stream Environment Zone (SEZ)—a category marking it for special protection in the Lake Tahoe watershed area. As it grew into a thriving commercial airport, it drew attention from environmentalists.

“The airport became a symbol environmentalists attacked as an example of how business is bad for the environment,” wrote Mike Bradford, the airport commissioner, in an airport newsletter late last year.

Environmentalists’ objections to the airport began when it was operating at its peak, transporting 294,000 passengers from Lake Tahoe Airport on scheduled airlines in 1978. Even as operations waned, concerns regarding the environmental impact of operations there grew. Years of litigation resulted in a settlement agreement in 1992 establishing strict noise and access restrictions at the airport. The restrictions in turn drove scheduled air carrier service from the airport and further decreased operations.

Lake Tahoe Airport’s new vision statement strives to reconcile business and environmental interests, stressing public safety, green technology, and reducing the airport’s environmental footprint. From an economic standpoint, the recent renovations are designed to appeal to regional jets and general aviation aircraft, including key rescue and firefighting units, Jenkins said. The Lake Tahoe Airport served as a critical base for helicopter firefighting efforts during and after the Angora Wildfire of June 2007.

As part of an effort to implement best management practices, Lake Tahoe Airport recently completed a project that narrowed the runway and replaced part of the edges with porous asphalt, which helps prevent runoff. The project restored about six acres of SEZ; and the airport hopes to attract regional jets and GA aircraft with the new 100-foot-wide runway, Jenkins said.

The airport undertook a number of other eco-friendly improvement projects, including moving the Upper Truckee River, which runs through airport property. Part of the river had been straightened in the early 1960s as part of a runway expansion, and environmentalists were concerned that the faster-flowing water was carrying sediment into the lake. Now, the river meanders slowly in an area outside the security fence, reducing the sediment going into the lake. The project also made the airport safer, Jenkins said, by deepening the river and giving it a gravel bottom to make it far less appealing to waterfowl.

Another previously contentious issue—the cutting down of trees on airport property that had resulted in a notice of violation and fine—was resolved when an environmental study revealed the trees were an invasive species. The airport removed those trees, eliminating the safety hazard to pilots, and planted willows, which help protect the meadow and riverbanks.

“It was really a win-win thing,” Jenkins said. “It made the airport safer and improved the environment.” He said he hopes other airports will follow Lake Tahoe Airport’s lead and take steps to improve from an environmental standpoint. Even projects as simple as planting vegetation and putting down woodchips to prevent erosion can make a difference, he added.

The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a bi-state agency organized by Nevada and California to protect and restore the environment of Lake Tahoe, has historically locked horns in court with the city over airport issues. In a symbol of reconciliation, this year the agency has signed up for a booth at the upcoming airshow.

“I think the airport is in better shape now than at any time in its 50-year history,” Jenkins said.

Topics: Advocacy

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