Tahoe's Champion League Turns 50
Since its inception, the League To Save Lake Tahoe has grown to some 4,500 members, acquired considerable political clout and produced a bumper sticker that's been slapped on nearly every SUV in the Basin. The nonprofit conservation organization has also engendered more than a few detractors who say that the group has strayed from its mission, and helped create yet more bureaucratic roadblocks to reviving the region's economic health. A look back at some of the watershed moments in the League's history helps answer the question: Have they helped keep Tahoe blue?
The League's Evolution
The League started in 1957 under the name Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association. Eight years later, directors changed the moniker to one that stuck: the League to Save Lake Tahoe. In the beginning, the members fought casino high rises, four-lane roads and unplanned growth. Nearly three decades later, noting that existing regulations weren't strong enough, the League sued the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) to halt a plan that would accelerate development. The resulting building moratorium ignited a war zone in which individuals with economic interests battled those who wanted to limit construction.
"Without the continued efforts of the League in terms of news and legal actions, we would have lost the battle to save Lake Tahoe back in the 1960s and '70s," says Dr. Charles Goldman, a University of California, Davis, limnologist who has documented a decline in The Lake's clarity since the late 1950s. Recently, Tahoe Basin politics have mellowed, and so has the League, which now works largely in concert with groups it once fought.
Today, the League operates with a $1.2 million budget used to keep an eye on development and support environmental restoration, public education and outreach activities. The League lobbies for state, local and federal funding to restore lands damaged by development and other activities, and it negotiates for the environment in planning processes. Outreach programs include Tahoe Forest Stewardship Day, educational programs for schoolchildren and storm-drain stenciling ("No Dumping—Drains to Lake").
Not Everyone Loves the League
Although the League has touched nearly anyone with an interest in The Lake, the organization has not always made everyone happy. Through the decades, League actions have contributed to polarization: little guy versus big guy, haves versus have-nots, locals versus out-of-towners, California versus Nevada and local government and planning agencies versus state and federal interests.
"They worked to get systems for carrying effl uent out of the Basin, and closed down efforts to develop a highway up the West Shore, a bridge across the mouth of Emerald Bay and a casino on top of Round Hill," says Steve Teshara, executive director of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. "Development like that was clearly not appropriate. They were courageous to stand up when it was not popular and say, 'There are some values that need to be protected.'"
The League's harshest critics charge the group with elitism and selfish singlemindedness. When the League formed, it needed money and clout; that came from wealthy lakefront homeowners, many of whom lived full time in the Bay Area. The organization couldn't have been successful without them. But, sitting across the ideological chasm were often the little people, the moms and pops, the average guys who wanted to build their dream cabins next to fragile streams, who saw the League's positions dash their own goals.
South Shore's Mike Bradford, who owns Lakeside Inn and Casino, says the League's goals are in plain opposition to the needs and desires of locals and visitors. "The Lake is here to be enjoyed by as many people as possible," he says. "From that point of view, it's important that we provide access, so that it is experienced by as many people as we can get here without impairing the environment. The way that the League focuses on the issues has a lot to do with keeping people out of here."
Bradford cites the long-standing debate over potential expansion of the South Lake Tahoe airport. The League is resisting, claiming that further build-out of the facility will add to air pollution and affect the integrity of the Upper Truckee River—the number one source of runoff into The Lake—because of upstream damage from development. "The League's position is tied to old ways of thinking," Bradford says. "It's bogged in the dogma of 20 years ago. Their positions are designed to bolster their membership."
Like Bradford, Carl Ribaudo, president of Strategic Marketing Group, believes the South Shore needs economic boosts from a new airport and other redevelopment projects in order to survive and facilitate environmental improvements. He says the communities around The Lake are in economic decline, a condition linked to development regulations promoted by conservation groups.
"Tourism is a tough industry in a lot of ways," Ribaudo says. "There are low-paying jobs and so on—all the more need to diversify. But diversification and attraction become difficult under regulation that adds significant costs to doing business. You ask business owners about capital investment, and they say it's too time consuming and costly to do.
"In my opinion," he adds, "the environment doesn't deserve more consideration than social and economic issues. And environmental regulations shouldn't be based on ideology or emotion, but on science and reason. What is the real environmental benefit of restoring clarity, and is it worth the hundreds of millions it will cost? So far, I think there has been a lot of wasted effort, because it has not been based on great science. Only now with the advent of the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) model are we getting the research and development tools we need to address lake clarity issues and hopefully focus on engineering solutions."
Watershed Moments in the League's History
Passions regarding the organization run hot partly because scars are deep. A review of watershed moments in the League's history reveals the challenges in not only preserving The Lake's health but also in gaining consensus among players.
Overdevelopment spurs activism
Between 1956 and 1960, Lake Tahoe's resident population surged from 2,850 to 12,000. One Nevada planner worried the area would become a "fast-growing city with a big hole in the middle of it." In 1959, El Dorado County planners approved 5,000 new lots in South Lake Tahoe, according to Douglas H. Strong, whose book, Tahoe: From Timber Barons to Ecologists, chronicles The Lake's conservation politics. South Tahoe's population was projected to reach 50,000 by 1984. There were no controls on signage, roads and lights. The Tahoe Keys development at the mouth of the Upper Truckee River was underway. Members of the new Tahoe Improvement and Conservation Association jumped in feet first to keep The Lake from becoming a runaway train ready to jump the track.
Failed regional plan leads to new League
In 1964, a new commission issued the first strategy for lake-wide planning. Called the 1980 Regional Plan, the proposal included three highways circling The Lake: one along the lakeshore for locals, a four-lane, mid-mountain express route and a scenic byway near the current location of the Tahoe Rim Trail. A bridge would span Emerald Bay and a manmade island along South Shore. The plan projected a total population of 300,000 by 1980.
"There were a lot of projects that were disturbing to the people who saw Lake Tahoe's best use for natural recreation," says Rochelle Nason, the League's executive director. "It raised the consciousness that Tahoe was in trouble and needed protection." In response, the Conservation Association ramped up its objectives and changed its name to the League to Save Lake Tahoe. New League goals included promoting The Lake as a national treasure, not just a local one, and spreading the message about Lake Tahoe nationwide. All levels of government should be involved in lake planning, the group declared, and a regional governing agency was essential.
"All around The Lake are small homeowners' associations, improvement organizations, business groups and dedicated individuals striving to do their part in dealing with the problems in their area," the League's first newsletter read. "But as hardworking as these groups are, they are unable to cope with the total problems of the Tahoe Basin: lake pollution, hillside scarring, highway intrusions, large-scale developments, et cetera."
The League's harshest critics charge the organization with elitism and selfish single-mindedness.
Without a regional agency though, there was no way to implement the proposed 1980 Regional Plan. After much debate, it faded.
TRPA fails to slow growth
Between 1960 and 1970, Tahoe's resident population doubled, assessed value tripled and market value quadrupled, according to a chronology compiled by the late Dwight Steele, a former League board member. In 1969, the California and Nevada state legislatures agreed to a bistate Tahoe Regional Planning Compact determining the structure and objectives of a regional planning group. Together with the U.S. Congress, they established the TRPA.
The agency faced hurdles from the get-go, for Tahoe was already growing at an alarming pace. In 1970, casinos reported annual revenues in the tens of millions. The South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce advertised that Tahoe offered urban amenities such as an airport, department stores, banks and radio stations, according to Strong. The new TRPA governing board approved 13,500 additional housing units during its first 15 months—99 percent of requests.
"The governing board was dominated by locally elected officials," Nason says. "At that time, the powers in the community were pro-growth, so we had a TRPA board that was progrowth." The board's voting structure allowed projects to be automatically approved if they were not acted on within 60 days. An editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle called the TRPA an "impotent pygmy," according to Steele. From the League's point of view, all hell was breaking loose. "In the 1970s, people thought Tahoe was the last frontier where they could make their fortunes, and they simply did not understand the limits," recalls Laurel Ames, a resident since the 1940s and one-time League executive director.
The League opposed all new, big developments and proposed a Basin-wide transit system. It suggested a moratorium on new projects in areas where runoff to The Lake could occur and pushed for programs to limit storm water runoff from urban areas such as parking lots and streets. Meanwhile, an opinion poll conducted with 8,000 residents in 1970 found that 45 percent thought scenic destruction was a major concern, 77 percent favored restriction on more casinos and 96 percent wanted architectural controls on commercial buildings.
In 1979, with the League's help, the Forest Service purchased 1,700 acres in Ward Valley for public use. That year, the federal government under Jimmy Carter produced its own study of Lake Tahoe issues and found that, during the TRPA's first eight years, concentrations of algae in The Lake actually increased by 150 percent and urban land development increased by 78 percent.
Continued rapid development and pressures from the League, the State of California and the federal government, along with growing environmental concerns in Nevada, prompted the revision of the original bistate compact in 1980. The amended agreement directed the TRPA to ban new subdivisions, new casinos and casino expansions; to create a transportation district for a transit system; to require environmental impact statements for every project that might significantly affect the environment; and to change governing board voting procedures to give states greater influence over projects proposed within their borders. And, the 60-day default approval requirement was eliminated.
The next two decades will determine whether we can continue in a positive direction or see a breakdown in what's been achieved.
That year, Congress passed the Santini-Burton Act, allocating the use of income from land sales near Las Vegas to the purchase of sensitive lands at Lake Tahoe. Additionally, in 1981, the League began its own land acquisition program. "With the adoption of the compact amendments and the adoption of the Santini-Burton Act, for the first time, tools were available to protect Lake Tahoe through both regulation and public investment," says Nason.
TRPA establishes standards
In 1982, with input from the League and other stakeholders, the TRPA unanimously adopted environmental threshold carrying capacity standards, addressing scenic, recreational, water quality, air quality, noise, wildlife, soil conservation, fishery and vegetation issues. "It was a huge moment in Lake Tahoe history," Nason says. "Passions were still really high, and people were polarized. Yet they were still able to say, 'Here's what matters to us, here's what we'll protect and we'll require solid scientific backing before any of this is changed.'" Meanwhile, that year Goldman reported a 25 percent decline in water clarity, a loss of 23 feet in 14 years, according to Dwight Steele.
League blocks development
In 1984, the California legislature established the California Tahoe Conservancy (CTC) to acquire land for conservation and public use. The League played a part in persuading California voters to pass the $85 million state-wide bond needed to fund the CTC, according to Larry Sevison, a North Tahoe contractor and CTC board member. Since then, the CTC has spent more than $150 million acquiring more than 5,400 acres of California residential and commercial property located within stream zones or on erosion-prone steep hillsides as well as containing meadows or ponds that affect The Lake's clarity if polluted. Private property owners with sensitive lands were suing the TRPA for imposing building restrictions on their property, so the CTC came up with funding to purchase those lands and put them into public ownership, which helped both the property owners, who were able to realize some value from their land, and the environment.
That year, the TRPA finished and adopted a new regional plan, but the League and the California attorney general argued that it did not comply with the 1980 bistate compact. They sued the agency, and a federal district court imposed a temporary building moratorium. Tempers boiled. Property owners and developers lobbied for development rights, and environmentalists wanted tighter restrictions. According to then–League executive director Tom Martens, League members were repeatedly threatened. They hired a security officer to check on the South Shore offices at night. Someone slashed Martens's tires at a Carson City meeting. Nevada threatened to withdraw from the bistate compact altogether.
In 1985, a new TRPA executive director, Bill Morgan, convened major stakeholders, including the League, for consensus building. Compromises during the two-year process produced an acceptable TRPA regional plan in 1987. "The plan contained two new concepts invented from scratch," says Teshara. "One was the individual parcel evaluation system (IPES), a new way to rate the buildability of residential property. The other was the requirement for community plans." The IPES score helped planners analyze a building site's propensity for erosion and other forms of lake pollution. The plan also prohibited new subdivisions and limited commercial development for ten years.
Era of collaboration
In 1985, public purchase of private land continued when the California Tahoe Conservancy bought a single $1.3 million lakefront parcel in King's Beach—today the town's large public beach facility. The same year, the League raised $60,000 to contribute to Nevada land acquisitions programs.
By now, Tahoe had been in a planning gridlock for a decade. In 1989, in exasperation, the League, the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council (a property rights organization), the gaming and ski industries, the chambers of commerce and redevelopment partners joined other groups to explore solutions.
"We asked, 'Is there any issue that these disparate groups can agree on so we can move something forward?'" says Teshara, who was executive director for the Tahoe Sierra Preservation Council at the time. "After a full day, we concluded that we could agree that transportation was a strategic issue on which we could make progress. It had environmental, community and business benefits."
They formed the Tahoe Transportation Coalition (now called the Lake Tahoe Transportation and Water Quality Coalition). One observer called the unlikely union of former opponents "a pact with devils." The media dubbed it an "unholy alliance." "When you have a lot of different problems to address, the strengths of personal relationships adds to the strengths of professional relationships and the ability to work things out," Teshara says.
The U.S. President visits The Lake
In 1993, a TRPA hydrologist reported that algae growth was up 22 percent in two years. In 1994, the League sued the TRPA over its approval of the expansion of commercial areas onto conservation and recreation lands outlined in community plans for Kingsbury, Stateline and Round Hill. The resulting settlement set important limits on urban boundaries, according to Nason.
A new TRPA executive director, Jim Baetge, proposed the idea of a comprehensive restoration plan. "We would get a big picture of all the needs at Tahoe and knit them together into one cohesive program that appropriately allocated responsibilities," Nason says. "This was the genesis of the Environmental Improvement Program, which is a piece of the TRPA regional plan. Even people opposed to the regulatory portions of the plan were enthusiastic about people working collaboratively on restoration issues."
A boon for all parties involved occurred in 1997 when President Clinton, Vice President Gore and a cast of political dignitaries visited Lake Tahoe. "Part of the reason President Clinton and Vice President Gore wanted to come to Tahoe was that Nevada senator Harry Reid was able to show them that this was not only an extraordinary resource, but that an extraordinary consensus had developed among this broad spectrum of interests, and that people of all political viewpoints could come together," Nason says. "Perhaps there were lessons from the Lake Tahoe consensus that could be applied elsewhere." Clinton signed an executive order creating necessary momentum for the ten-year, $908 million Environmental Improvement Program. The federal government's commitment at the program's outset was $300 million, as authorized in the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act. Now, ten years later, all program targets have been met. The TRPA is currently engaged in chartering a second phase of the program, which will be key in implementing their new regional plan, slated for adoption in 2008.
The League is at a turning point now as the TRPA considers a new 20-year plan to manage regulation and restoration. "All the key issues—development, land use, transportation, shore zone—are at play," Nason says. "From 1980 to 2007, there have been ups and downs, but overall, we have moved in the right direction. The regulation has become stronger and clearer, and, at the same time, in many ways fairer and less onerous to property owners as defects have been corrected. The consensus around restoration and investment in the future has moved forward. Now as we look at the next 23 years—because it will take another 3 years to get the new plan into place—those years will determine whether or not we can continue and accelerate movement in a positive direction or see a breakdown in what's been achieved."
Meanwhile, science shows it is possible to keep Lake Tahoe blue. Reducing pollution in the Basin by 30 percent over the next several years would dramatically reverse lake degradation, say scientists from the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center, who have created a new lake clarity model. That requires big improvements, according to Goldman, like restoring Cove East of Pope Meadow in the Upper Truckee River watershed, which provides the biggest infl ow into The Lake, or dramatically cutting air pollution.
"It takes about 5 years of data to tell whether there's been a change in the trend," Goldman says. "Climactic conditions make a huge difference. The Lake has warmed a whole degree in the last 30 years. Until we have 4 to 5 years of data, we won't know if we have reversed it.
"Spending the money to restore The Lake to 1960s levels will mean we've stopped the decline that, if allowed to continue, will give us only 12 feet of clarity by 2030," he says. "If you're only going to live five or ten years, it may not make any difference to you, but we have future generations to think about. The value of clean water alone in the future of both states makes the cost-benefit of repairing the Basin definitely worthwhile."
Without the League—and all the other area groups committed to preserving Lake Tahoe's enduring beauty—the Basin would certainly have more high rises, larger urban areas, wider roads, more traffic congestion, greater air pollution and murkier water. While alternative transportation systems are still in their infancy and plenty of silt still pours into The Lake from damaged streams and urban runoff, many stakeholders believe a turnaround is possible in the next several years because of the new scientific models and the continuing political partnerships.
To many people involved, those partnerships are the key to progress at the Lake. Other players note that the League yielded its greatest power during the sometimes painful decades when it used the might of litigation and political influence to force landmark protective measures. Which path will the League follow in the twenty-first century? Time—and clarity levels—will tell.