SOUTH LAKE TAHOE - When Jim Baetge was growing up in Bishop, he used to visit Lake Tahoe. He thought the brilliantly blue lake was wonderful.
Ever since it has been a part of his life, whether he was working for the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, California Department of Transportation or state Water Resources Control Board. And it goes without saying that he's been involved in Tahoe issues over the last five years. To Baetge, however, it also goes without saying that Tahoe still will be a part of his life, even after he leaves his position as executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a post he has held since 1994.
"When I was growing up, I thought Tahoe was an exceptionally wonderful place to go, and I never got away from it," Baetge said. "Tahoe will always be in my life. Obviously, I have a lot of strong feelings for what ought to happen here.
"I don't think I'll ever get rid of my cabin up here; I love it so much."
Baetge's tenure as TRPA's chief is longer than any of his predecessors.
In February, however, he had surgery to remove a kidney and, with the many demands of the position, has been unable to fully recover.
Saying if he couldn't "do it 100 percent," he wasn't the right person for the job, Baetge announced last month that Jan. 7, 2000, would be his last day.
"Obviously, it's going to be a big loss for the agency," said Jerry Wells, deputy director of TRPA, Tahoe's bistate regulatory authority. "The good news is if there ever was a time for Jim to leave, this probably isn't a bad one. The programs are in place; everything we do is progressing all the time. I don't see it as being overly disruptive, but obviously it will be a loss for the basin to lose his expertise and vision."
Since Baetge came to TRPA, the agency has gained a lot of support for its mission, from federal and state governments and from residents of Tahoe. Its yearly budgets - one-third of which comes from Nevada, two-thirds from California - have grown. A two-year debate over banning certain types of watercraft from the lake has gone on, and the agency recently has received information showing the prohibition has resulted in as much as 90 percent reduction in gasoline compounds in the lake. The president and vice president visited Tahoe, bringing national attention to the fight to save the lake's declining clarity.
And Baetge's biggest achievement, he and others believe, is a document called the Environmental Improvement Program. It is a dynamic work developed by TRPA that lays out what needs to be done, how fast and for how much money in order to meet the agency's objectives.
Baetge, now 62, worked for Caltrans in the 1960s and 1970s, which included a stint as the acting executive director of California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in the late 1970s, a no-longer-existant agency separate from TRPA but one addressing many of the same issues.
Baetge was involved in Tahoe issues then and also during five years as executive director of the California State Water Resources Control Board. He retired from there in 1991, not knowing for sure what he would do in the future. And then the opportunity for the TRPA position came along.
He thought it was ideal. Beating out 133 other applicants, Baetge took the job in May 1994.
The position is one that takes long hours and, as Baetge says, it's one you can't get away from even when you go home. His annual salary, recently raised by the board, is $85,000.
"It's a rewarding job," Baetge said. "Your job is continually trying to develop win-win solutions with a lot of players. It's rewarding, but it takes a lot of energy."
Besides resting and getting his energy back, Baetge has no immediate plans for the future. He and his wife Diane have a house in Sacramento and a cabin at Tahoe, which he has no plans to get rid of. They have a son and daughter, two grandchildren and another grandchild on the way.