ental PreservationLake Tahoe, an enormous expanse of clear, blue, fresh water surrounded by meadows and dense forests and rimmed by snow-capped peaks, is one of the world’s great scenic and ecological wonders. Tahoe’s water is world famous for its amazing clarity. Even today, one can see objects 70 feet below the surface, a clarity matched almost nowhere in the world. The Tahoe Basin had a slowly evolving and essentially balanced environment for thousands of years, with surrounding forests, meadows and marshlands helping to maintain the clarity and purity of the lake.
This pristine environment also provided habitat for great diversity of plants and wildlife. Hundreds of species of native plants thrived in forest, marsh, and meadow. But now, in scarcely a century, an equilibrium that endured for thousands of years is rapidly being lost due to environmental degredation and resource values are steadily deteriorating because of human activities. While there is an appearent lose of wildlife and environment that exists in The Lake Tahoe Basin, there is also an insurgance of environmental conservation that has become increasingly powerful in the attempt at stopping these adverse affects on the environment from happening in the hope that the beauty of Lake Tahoe will continue to exist for generations and generations more.
The first major change in the environment came with the logging of the 1860s, when much of the basin’s forest was clear-cut. The logging tapered off with the collapse of the mining boom, but not before most of the Tahoe’s virgin forest was gone. By the 1920s, cars and better roads made Tahoe accessible to the ordinary visitor, and landholdings began to be subdivided for summer homes, especially along the southern and western portions of the basin.
The urbanization of the Tahoe Basin remained a relatively slow process until the 1950s, when the opening of Highway 50 and the completion of Interstate 80 brought the San Francisco Bay area within a four-hour drive. Year-round access to the lake encouraged expansion, as modest clubs designed for seasonal business were transformed into towering casinos packed with visitors throughout the year. The new access in winter also attracted thousands to the basin’s ski slopes, and in addition to this increase due to accessability, the 1960 Olympics were held in the Lake Tahoe Basin, at the Squaw Valley Ski Resort. This event created an explosion of rapid expansion of the ski and service industry. Today, recreation has become the centerpiece of a one and a half billion dollar economy which employs more than 20,000 people.
Between 1960-1980, as the number of businesses and their visitors grew, the permanent population of the region increased tremendously. These permanent residents in turn have needed homes, stores and services. In the meantime, second-home development has boomed, as more and more people have found themselves with the desire and the means to enjoy the amenities of the Tahoe Basin. In this same period, the number of houses grew from 500 to 19,000. By 1970, more than 49,000 subdivided lots had been created and more than 600 miles of roads had been built to serve the new subdivisions.
Sometime in the early 70s, a bi-state agency backed by California and Nevada and with the federal government’s blessing, was formed. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency as it is known today was originally intended to stop the rapid development and improve water and air quality and to preserve the lake for future generations, but with the first Compact that was created the agency had little control over any environmental regulations they posed, and thus the original compact had to be revised. The Compact, as revised in 1980, gave TRPA authority to adopt environmental quality standards, called thresholds, and to enforce ordinances designed to achieve the thresholds. The TRPA Governing Board adopted the thresholds in 1982. The Governing Board adopted a long-range regional plan in April of 1984. After three years of negotiations, the TRPA Governing Board adopted the 1987 Regional Plan in effect today.
Additional supporting organizations have made TRPA possible. The League to Save Lake Tahoe has made an impact in its “Keep Tahoe Blue” campaign in getting out the word about threats to Lake Tahoe’s health. The California Tahoe Conservancy and the US Forest Service’s land buyout programs helps in the removal of highly sensitive lands from the real estate market, and thus the conservation of Lake Tahoe. California Tahoe Conservancy’s land banking program helps with the continued economic growth of the region by finding a way to both preserve sensitive lands and develop areas that TRPA has deemed as capable of such land use
Socioeconomic Data for the Lake Tahoe Basin
Socioeconomic195019601950-1960 Change (in %)19701960-1970 Change (in %)2000
Summer Population133,000 200,000
Housing units total:43,66246,122N/AN/AN/AN/A
Total vacant housing:22,50920,574N/AN/AN/AN/A
Vacant housing for seasonal, recreational, occasional use:14,73118,257N/AN/AN/AN/A
Median single-family housing prices:$119,000 $285,000 N/AN/AN/AN/A
Mailing address of homeowner:
Outside of area (in %):54N/AN/AN/AN/A
Greater Tahoe area (in %):28N/AN/AN/AN/A
Lake Tahoe region (in %):18N/AN/AN/AN/A
^Includes Placerville and Carson City data. Sub-county data not available before 1990.
Table One on the next page summarizes the population changes in those counties that occurred in the twenty years prior to the establishment of TRPA. As is indicated by the data, the area grew at a high rate before the establishment of TRPA. Also included in the table, is the summer population. This data is important to examine in order to understand the drastic population fluctuation’s impact on the Tahoe Basin. It is also vital for understanding the reason behind TRPA being formed, in order to increase environmental conservation and awareness.
Another indicator of this secondary population is the amount of vacant housing due to seasonal or recreational use as a proportion of the amount of housing in the basin. The percentage of outside of area owners of housing and condominiums indicates that most residences are not owner-occupied or are vacant for occasional use. Finally, the median single-family housing price shows an increasing problem in the Tahoe basin, that housing is becoming less and less affordable in the area.
The permanent population is now about 54,000, and as many as 200,000 people visit during the busiest summer weekends. A tremendous portion of this population growth is due in large part in the Lake Tahoe area to the Geriatrification of the available property. The “Baby Boomers” who are buying second homes and retiring in unprecedented numbers have recently surpassing all other age groups in the home purchasing market in the region of Lake Tahoe. This is a large group of people who are just scratching the surface of the second home market and who have a good fifteen years left of buying power. With their incrochment of the market of available homes in the Tahoe Basin it is becoming impossible for young families to move into, or stay in the area any longer.
These signifigance behind these terms such as geriatrification and urbanization have had other impacts on the basin as well. The beauty of Lake Tahoe attracts millions of visitors each year. However, public access is limited due to the lack of access points, or of adequate facilities at existing sites. As a result, the available beaches and other recreation facilities are often tremendously overcrowded. Traffic congestion is ever-worsening. This situation not only lessens the quality of the recreational experience, it also contributes to the degradation of the lake’s water quality, because of erosion from unpaved but heavily-used overflow parking areas and increased air pollution from stalled traffic.
Many existing trails are not linked because key portions of public right-of-way cannot be obtained, making it difficult for people to get from one area to another by bicycle or by walking. Instead, many visitors today find themselves trapped in their cars, unable to catch more than a glimpse of the lake and its meadows and marshes through the wall of buildings and closed-off property that screens so much of the lake from view.
With urbanization has come subdivision and development, much of it in environmentally sensitive areas. This has placed a severe strain on the ability of the land and its vegetation to absorb a greatly increased load of silt-laden water and to filter out the undesirable nutrients and pollutants. Construction of roads, parking lots and buildings in inappropriate areas disturbs the soil and increases erosion and runoff. Buildings, paved roads, and parking lots cover the moisture-absorbing soil and its plant life. They increase runoff from unvegetated areas to the point that it erodes ditches and overloaded stream channels and pours nutrient-rich sediment directly into the lake.
The gradual degradation of the lake went largely unrecognized for some years, as the damage occurred little-by-little with each additional lot that was built on, each new road that went in. There was one cumulative indicator, however — the decline in the celebrated clarity of the lake. Just since 1968, Tahoe’s waters have lost more than 40 feet of their transparency. And the loss continues, at the alarming rate of a foot to a foot and a half every year. The algae growth rate, meanwhile, has doubled. In a few swift decades, Lake Tahoe’s crystalline waters could become as clouded as the waters of any ordinary lake.
Wildlife has also suffered from urbanization. The basin provides habitat for more than 290 species of birds, animals, and fish, plus more than a thousand species of plants. Their preservation has been increasingly difficult as development and other human activities degrade or destroy more and more of their habitat. The basin’s original marshlands have been reduced by 75%, its meadows by 50% and its riparian areas by 35%. As a result of the loss of habitat, the huge flocks of migratory geese and other waterfowl that once visited every year no longer use the basin as a resting place. Ducks and geese have trouble finding nesting areas free from human disturbance. Bald eagles and ospreys lack undisturbed perching and nesting sites. Fish find it difficult to migrate up streams to spawn.
The forests that many wildlife species and Lake Tahoe’s clarity depend upon have suffered from a number of problems since most of the original mixed forest of pines and firs was logged off for the Comstock mines. The existing stands are overstocked and lack species and age diversity due to the lack of management and fire suppression. The problems have now become acute, however, as much of the basin’s forest is dead or dying as a result of a seven-year drought and accompanying insect invasion. With tree mortality varying between 25% and 40%, there are serious concerns about the possibility of wildfires and other threats to public safety.
On the positive side, as the Conservancy and other land-managing agencies put extra effort into fire hazard control, they also have an opportunity to improve long-term forest health through measures ranging from revegetation of disturbed soils to the thinning of dense small trees.
Faced with the task of trying to balance economic and community growth with protecting valuable natural resources, TRPA is said to have done commendable work. The Agency says they have not been able to meet their own environmental threshold carrying capacities and may never do so; however, this task in the face of a growing population with increasing demands seems nearly impossible without returning the area to an untouched habitat. TRPA states that even in that impossible case, the lake would probably see some continued clarity degradation before returning to clarity. The fact that TRPA has been able to slow degradation of clarity in Lake Tahoe is impressive.
The challenge of the future is to accommodate our human activities to the natural system that has maintained the Tahoe Basin for thousands of years. Only then can we enjoy the lake without destroying the very qualities that make it so uniquely valuable. To meet this challenge, a comprehensive basin-wide effort is being undertaken by a wide range of federal, state, regional and local agencies and private organizations.
Two primary resource management strategies are being employed. One is an extensive regulatory and planning system administered by various agencies such as the bi-state Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA). The second strategy is a massive public acquisition and site improvement effort involving numerous organizations.
While there are constraints on the allowable amount of development in the area, there are many pressures for expansion to accommodate the high numbers of people. There is a notable need to balance environmental protection with the overall well-being of those who enjoy the area. However, the health of this precious environment should not be compromised by an increase in population or an increase in the demands of that population.
Lake Tahoe’s clarity depends on the overall health of the surrounding forests and wetlands, and to achieve a healthy environment we must conserve the land that has remained untouched. For this reason, the TRPA organization and many other environmental protectionist groups of the Lake Tahoe Basin, support redevelopment as an alternative to new development, and we strongly believe all development should be contained within the existing urban boundaries. Redevelopment allows for many environmental improvements to be made.
League to Save Lake Tahoe, Lake Tahoe’s Annual Clarity Chart, South Lake Tahoe, California.
Douglas Strong, Tahoe: An Environmental History. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, c1984), pp 22-31.
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, About TRPA: Mission Statement. Online. Available: http://www.trpa.org/Mission.htm. Accessed: June 1, 2005.
U.S. Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, Lake Tahoe Federal Advisory Committee. Online. Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu/local/ltfac/. Accessed: June 1, 2005.
U.S. Census Bureau. California Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990. Online. Available: http://www.census.gov/population/cencounts/ca190090.txt. Accessed: June 1, 2005.