Lake Tahoe’s recreational resources have been popular for generations, but last year when the pandemic descended upon us the number of people heading for the beaches, the hiking trails, and sledding hills reached new heights.
Unfortunately, many of those enjoying Tahoe’s natural splendor left piles of litter and dog poop bags, defaced natural landmarks with graffiti, left unattended campfires in the woods, and consistently parked illegally and dangerously on narrow Tahoe basin roads. Equally disturbing for many local residents, all those visitors clogged the forests, the places of refuge from the world, at the time when everyone was trying to stay six feet apart.
The Tahoe Rim Trail is the premier hiking and mountain biking trail in the region. For several years the Tahoe Rim Trail Association has been actively tracking trail user numbers. The TRTA Trail Data Report for 2020 concludes, “In general, the counters have confirmed anecdotal and observational evidence and suggest that there was a large increase of users in the early part of 2020 compared to 2019. This was due to the popularity of trail-based recreation in the face of the pandemic.”
Interestingly, the report goes on to say, “use dropped off precipitously in September due to the heavy smoke in the area from wildfires and widespread and long-lasting forest closures.”
The TRTA estimates that over 500,000 people per year use the 170 mile trail and its connector routes. This is perhaps ten times as many users as ten years ago. The increase comes from a wide range of user types from beginning hikers and bike riders, to expert bikers and long distance backpackers thru-hiking the entire trail.
The increased use of backcountry trails is inevitable considering the growing population within a half day’s drive of Tahoe: There are an estimated 14 million people living between Reno and the Bay Area in Northern California and Northwestern Nevada. Depending upon the source there are an estimated 8 to 14 million annual visitors to the lake each year, and 50 million annual vehicle trips in and out of the basin (this includes commuters, which there are more and more of each year since the high cost and low availability of long term housing has forced many Tahoe workers to commute from Reno and Carson City).
All those visitors heading onto hiking trails and beaches unfortunately has led to more litter on the trail, toilet paper left behind by those who don’t understand that if you pack it in, you have to pack it out, and increased fire danger caused by those who don’t understand the danger of fires in the bone-dry Sierra forest.
“Tahoe was one of the only places you could go during the pandemic,” said Heidi Hill Drum, chief executive officer of the Tahoe Prosperity Center. But this led folks who are “not naturally stewards of the environment to visit. Leaving trash on the side of the road, like baby diapers and plastic sleds? Who does that? Someone who cares about our community would not do that. A level of visitation this past summer involved a lot of people who didn’t have a love of the region,” said Drum.
Crowds and Locals Take Action on Litter
The pandemic also increased the frustration level for locals dealing with the crowds. Tourists crammed the most popular and beautiful spots such as the East Shore and Emerald Bay to the extent that Tahoe locals felt forced to live according to an old Yogi Berra classic line: “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” Which unfortunately fosters an us versus them mentality with locals wishing the visitors would just stay away.
While Truckee resident Court Leve has been frustrated with litter and the lack of respect for the Sierra’s natural surroundings for years, “when my dog jumped out of the Truckee River with a plastic bottle in his mouth, I decided that something had to change,” he said. Leve started the Truckee Tahoe Litter Group on Facebook in an effort to publicize the problem and try to get local government agencies to take action. The site quickly became a rallying cry for those opposed to overtourism in the region and has over 2000 members.
“Truckee Tahoe has a California problem,” Leve said. “I went on a two month road trip last year. I was in Colorado and Utah, at the tail end of the trip I came back to California. There was more trash in Death Valley and Lone Pine than I saw in the 50 days prior in Colorado and Utah. There was balled up toilet paper all over the place. They can’t keep up with it, and that sucks. We are going to see it happening more and more.”
Leve believes that a lot of people coming to the lake are not outdoors people, and that in the city littering is not such a big deal. While he says that the number of people coming to the Tahoe Sierra and the lack of education is the driver of the problem, he is equally frustrated with the lack of action by local public agencies.
“They have no one to pick up trash. They have no budget for them. We pay a lot of taxes to California and a ton of revenue comes in. We cannot handle the volume of visitors that are coming here,” said Leve.
In that vein, many locals have been calling for a halt to money spent on marketing the area. Instead, they feel dollars should be allocated to deal with the negative impacts of too many people coming to the area.
What can be done about it?
The Truckee Tahoe Litter Group has been working hard with the Town of Truckee and Placer County to get the public agencies to up their game when it comes to trash pick up and litter enforcement. Volunteer trash pick up efforts are ongoing around the lake, which you could join if you would like to help, but the Litter Group is emphasizing that government needs to take a more active role in keeping our communities clean as well.
The Tahoe Rim Trail Association several years ago changed their mission statement so that they will no longer be marketing the trail, but instead the focus will be on maintenance and protection of this valuable resource. The TRTA also has taken on an important role of educating users to practice appropriate behavior in the backcountry.
This summer, the TRTA will “have staff and volunteers hang out at trailheads and provide stewardship information to people,” said Morgan Steele, TRTA Executive Director. “If you are not in this outdoor recreational scene you might not understand. It seems there is a need to educate people on basic outdoor ethics.” If you are interested in volunteering for the Task Force Trailhead Project this summer, contact the Tahoe Rim Trail Association.
The Take Care Tahoe campaign, is an ongoing effort of 50 organizations to educate Tahoe visitors on proper use of the environment. They have produced fun and clever signage that can be seen throughout the region reminding people to treat the environment with respect. For litter there is a sign that says, “Your butt’s stinking up the beach,” And “If it’s your dog, then it’s your doody.” For proper disposal of garbage to keep bears away: “Trash day is a bear’s buffet,” and one with a bear in the background that says, “This guy has reservations with your trash.”
On Earth Day, the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association unveiled a Traveler Responsibility Pledge in an effort to educate visitors on the importance of taking care of Lake Tahoe.
It consists of six tenets that according to the resort association “outline actions we can do to immediately reduce our travel related impacts.”
The Trail Ahead
Hill Drum feels that with the pandemic still a factor and people still not confident about flying, we will see another big migration to Tahoe this summer, but “land management agencies hopefully will have better staffing and better trash pick up. Hopefully we will be more proactive this year, reducing the impacts. On the other hand our trails and lake can only take so much,” said Hill Drum.
Hill Drum says that the long run solution is to educate our visitors about how to take care of Tahoe and to find ways to diversify Tahoe’s economy away from a tourism only model. She also believes it is time to get out of this us versus them mentality which is prevalent in the area.
“We are not welcoming to our new neighbors,” Hill Drum said. “We are not the welcoming place that we should be. Eighty percent were not born here. The divide of us versus them is something that we work on.”
Tim Hauserman is a nearly life-long resident of North Lake Tahoe. He wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the 4th edition of which was published last July. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and writes frequently on a variety of topics. In the winter, he runs the Strider Glider after school program at Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area. Support his work in the Ally.