Raising money to improve Lake Tahoe
By Leonie Sherman
When then President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore visited the sparkling shores of Lake Tahoe in 1997, they kicked off a frenzy of interest in protecting the largest alpine lake on the continent. Residents have loved and worked to preserve the clear waters, glaciated peaks and surrounding magnificent forests for millennia.
Though 80% of the land surrounding the iconic lake is federally owned, most environmental efforts had been at the local or state level. Federal involvement kicked off the coordination of hundreds of lake improvement projects, including healthier forests and lake clarity initiatives, the removal of invasive aquatics, and the enhancement of outdoor recreation and beach access. Over the next 20 years, between state and federal investment, almost a billion dollars poured into the Tahoe Basin for improvements.
And then came the financial crash of 2008-2009. Funding dried up. A group of local leaders got together to determine where the next source of funding to continue these important projects would come from. “There were already 51 public and private organizations doing environmental work in the basin,” says Amy Berry, CEO of the non-profit organization that emerged from those conversations. “The real need wasn’t for more groups doing more great work, but for raising money to fund more of the great work already going on.”
So they started the Tahoe Fund, the area’s first non-profit dedicated solely to raising money for environmental projects. Their first task was to create a high powered volunteer board with diverse interests. “They recruited folks from Nevada and California, from the north shore and the south shore. Between them they’d owned ski resorts, gotten the first sidewalks installed in Tahoe City and headed state conservation organizations,” Berry reports with pride.
The newly formed organization recognized that there had been a lot of contention among lovers of the Tahoe Basin. “This model of raising private funds for public projects, creating a culture of collaboration and quieting discord by focusing on the common goal of preserving Lake Tahoe had never been tried before,” explains Berry. “The question was: what can we get done if we all work together?” The answer turned out to be a lot more than expected. The Tahoe Fund aimed to raise $100,000 in their first year; they ended up raising a half a million dollars.
Clearly they needed staff to spearhead their community outreach efforts. Amy Berry, a dynamo from New York City with a background in marketing and renewable energy, proved the ideal candidate. She joined the Tahoe Fund as their first full-time staff member in 2012. Berry worked together with consultants and eventually held the title of CEO. They brought on an operations manager last year.
“This is literally my dream job!” she gushes. “The board tells me: go find ways we can help get things done around the Tahoe Basin. Donors tell me: we love this place, how can we help? Project partners raise their hands and say: we need help,” she giggles like a kid in a candy store. “My job is to sit in the middle of all that and make connections.”
“Amy is pretty contagious,” says donor Marty Putnam, who lives in the Bay Area. “She sponsors tons of community events and we participate in all of them we can. Like, she got Tamara McKinney and Jonny Moseley to ski with us at Squaw! Levi Leipheimer rode mountain bikes with us! It’s so easy to stay engaged with the Tahoe Fund. Amy’s enthusiasm and love for the lake rubs off on everyone she interacts with.”
But the Tahoe Fund is impressive for more than just a dynamic CEO. Their ability to remain politically neutral, dedication to environmental projects, and solid results attracted Putnam. “A lot of local environmental groups are politically charged. The Tahoe Fund doesn’t take political stands. They see the Tahoe Basin as a national treasure to preserve and enhance. My wife and I are just interested in helping the Tahoe Basin without some of the divisiveness that can come with political engagement, especially in this day and age, so their attitude really resonated with us.”
“The other thing is they fund hands-on, boots-on-the-ground late stage projects and that appealed to us immensely,” explains Putnam. The Tahoe Fund has supported 35 projects since their inception nine years ago. “They get more done with less than any organization I know!”
One of their goals is to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire. “The forests here were clear cut in the 1860s, then they grew back with the wrong diversity and density,” explains Berry. “Now we just have too many trees around Tahoe. Our forest needs thinning.” She is hoping a private organization with fund-raising clout can bring innovative ideas to help the public agencies.
The Tahoe Fund’s most visible projects are less controversial than removing trees. Their most recent victory was creating a bike and pedestrian path from Incline Village to Sand Harbor. In order to access the lake, locals would park along the highway and then cross with kids and coolers, creating a traffic and safety hazard. The dream of creating a path to improve access, safety and storm water drainages goes back over four decades. “The first line on a map for this path was drawn in 1987,” explains Berry. By 2013, the entire path and cooperation from all 13 involved agencies was in place — they just needed money.
The Tahoe Fund secured a $12.5 million grant that required a $500,000 match. “Our board members saw a gorgeous path, safety and environmental improvements and decided to take this on,” says Berry. “We started a campaign in 2014, with the aim of raising $750,000, so we’d have some money for a maintenance fund as well. We reached that goal in six weeks.” Everyone who donated over $100 got their name on a donor wall and big donors were able to sponsor vista points. All told, the Tahoe Fund raised more than $1 million in private funding which allowed them to secure over $20 million in public money for the project. “The impossible trail is now possible,” says Berry with a sigh of satisfaction.
The trail’s grand opening on June 28, was a large community celebration with a huge turnout. “We gave out 800 t-shirts!” Berry says with a grin. “The governor of Nevada showed up, we walked three miles chatting with him! This was day one of years of memories that will be created out there.”
The bike path epitomizes Tahoe Fund’s work- cooperation and leverage. “We recognize that the Tahoe Fund doesn’t do anything on its own. We are just one of many who made this project happen. This was a tremendous collaboration between public and private sectors.” Through the bike path and dozens of similar projects, the Tahoe Fund is living up to its motto: Together Creating A Legacy.
Learn more about the Tahoe Fund and how you can get involved at tahoefund.org.