The influential travel magazine Fodor’s recently asked travelers to not travel to some locations this year because of overtourism and the impact on the local environment of too many visitors. One of the ten areas on the “No List” is Lake Tahoe. “Lake Tahoe has a people problem. Amid the pandemic and the great migration, there was an influx of people moving to the mountains, as well as people with second homes in the area coming to live in Tahoe permanently. And it’s caused traffic along the lake to crawl, as well as kept trails and beaches packed,” said Fodor’s.
The magazine went on “heavy traffic crushes Tahoe’s roads into fine dust and debris and pumps tailpipe emissions into the air. When it rains or snow melts, stormwater transports these fine pollution particles into the Lake, clouding its cobalt blue waters. Improving Tahoe’s traffic conditions will reduce this pollution source, and alleviate the stress and strain of travel in Tahoe.”
What do Tahoe folks think about Fodor’s including Tahoe on the No Fly list? Scott Robbins, spokesman for the Tahoe Neighborhood Group and 2022 South Lake Tahoe City Council member said in the Fodor’s story: “It is difficult to take our city’s talk about leadership on the problem of long-term climate change seriously when we simultaneously encourage visitor traffic that results in jams that can stretch into Sacramento.”
A survey by the Tahoe Prosperity Center (TPC) earlier this year said that a healthy majority of Tahoe residents agree with the sentiment that Tahoe is headed in the wrong direction. In addition to survey numbers, anecdotally any perusal of a Tahoe social media discussion will show a great deal of dissatisfaction among people with both the number of people who visit Tahoe and how they behave when they are here.
The attitude of many may be summed up in one comment left on the Fodor’s website in response to the story: “I would urge you not to visit Lake Tahoe unless you love crowded beaches, gridlock around the lake and beyond, want to spend lots of money because it’s really, really expensive here. Gas is $7.00 a gallon currently…People simply do not respect the area and I’m fed up with people’s me-me-me attitudes without consideration for those who live here.”
On the other hand, Tahoe is still, and most likely will always be, a tourist-based economy. The small businesses that allow most Tahoe folks to live here do so via the largesse of the visitors.
Tahoe Prosperity Center CEO Heidi Hill Drum suggests that people do not boycott Tahoe, but use the story to remind travelers to be considerate when they visit the lake. “That is the real issue,” said Hill Drum. “Complaining about tourism is an exercise in futility, there are a lot of solutions. We need to work towards a sustainable tourist economy. Let’s make it work for everyone, travelers, and residents.”
South Lake Tahoe based tourism expert Carl Ribaudo, President of SMG Consulting, says, “We see this dynamic all over the country, every mountain town: Vail, Park City, everybody is dealing with traffic, crowding and congestion. It is brought on by a lot of different things. The tourism folks are acutely aware of this and are working hard to figure out how to move ahead.” said Ribaudo. “In the short run the best opportunity is to educate people.”
A major effort is underway to create a Lake Tahoe Destination Stewardship Plan, which will be focused on balancing the needs of local residents, businesses and visitors. It is being created with the input of a whole host of players including local businesses, government, environmental organizations and tourist agencies. For more information on this plan go to stewardshiptahoe.org You can also read the article I wrote about the effort in Tahoe Quarterly magazine. https://tahoequarterly.com/fall-2022/a-united-front
“Those working on the stewardship plan get it, they are working hard to find solutions,” said Ribaudo.
Those agencies whose primary goal used to be promoting the lake understand the issue as well. The North Lake Tahoe Resort Association developed a Visitors Pledge, which both visitors and locals can follow to become sustainable travelers. “We are educating people on what it means to be a steward. How do we reduce our carbon footprint? Pack out what you pack in. Keeping wildlife wild.” said Tony Karwowski, CEO of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association.
Karwowski says they are becoming a destination management organization. Now some of their funding goes towards creating badly needed workforce housing and improvements to the transportation network. “The biggest struggles in our region are housing and transportation.”
While locals understand that we are a tourist economy, it is still hard to swallow the changes we see. Places we used to regularly visit that were not crowded now require you to get there by 8 am to get a parking spot. And those parking places which used to be free, now you have to pay for them. We used to hike on the Tahoe Rim Trail for miles and see just a few people, now the trails feel inundated with users.
Many locals simply don’t visit the popular places like Emerald Bay and Sand Harbor anymore because they are too crowded to enjoy. It’s no wonder there are probably lots of locals saying “Hoorah” to Fodor’s.
But Hill Drum reminds us that “As residents, we use trails and use beaches. we also contribute to the crowdedness. Because we live here doesn’t mean we have access more than everyone else.” And it is true, that locals hiking on trails and complaining about too many people hiking on trails does seem a bit hypocritical. Instead, all of us need to work on solutions, and model our own behavior so that those who visit the area will follow.
The Tahoe Rim Trail Association was ahead of the curve in dealing with the issue, five years ago they made a major shift from promoting the 165-mile trail to a focus on maintenance and education on proper use of the trail. tahoerimtrail.org
One issue that locals and agencies all agree on is a major problem that needs to be dealt with is the dramatic increase in litter and graffiti over the last few years. The Facebook Page Truckee Tahoe Litter Group formed in 2020 and now has over 2600 members: All working on keeping litter and those damn poop bags out of our environment. And on getting local and regional governmental agencies to step up and deal with the issue. This often means more public trash containers, more frequent trash pick up, and more education to a public that for some reason has forgotten that litter is not only illegal but a very uncool thing to do.
Some solutions seem simple, but given the myriad of different agencies in a place with two states and five counties, it doesn’t get done. A classic example are the popular sledding hills around the lake. People buy cheap plastic sleds, they break, and they leave them on the hill creating a huge litter problem. How about sled garbage cans that are regularly picked up? And an education program to remind people to pack it in and pack it out? And finally, enforcement of the $1,000 fine for littering? Local anti-litter groups have complained that law enforcement is reluctant to enforce the litter law.
“A more concerted effort among the agencies, as well as visitors is needed on the litter issue. The Stewardship planning group really recognizes it and it is on the radar.” said Ribaudo.
Karwowski summed up how local residents of the Tahoe region can help make Tahoe a better place to both live and visit: “We really need our locals to understand their role, which is modeling stewardship. Participating in a culture that stresses how important it is to keep it beautiful and take care of our region. It is all of our responsibility to be a part of it. I feel strong and passionate about this place, but it is hard work, it will not be easy, but we have a unique opportunity. “
Tim Hauserman is a freelance writer and nearly a lifelong resident of North Lake Tahoe. In Addition to Going It Alone, he wrote the official guide to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the recently published 4th edition. He also wrote Monsters in the Woods: Backpacking with Children and has written hundreds of articles on a variety of topics: travel, outdoor recreation, housing, education, and wildfires. Check out Tim’s website here.
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