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John Singlaub: Visitors must be part of Lake Tahoe restoration

John Singlaub
TRPA Executive Director
By John Singlaub
ALL |

Those of us who live at Lake Tahoe are privileged. Our days unfold before a backdrop of snow-capped peaks bathed in light. Broad Lake vistas teem with colors set off by the legendary clarity of Tahoe waters.

The air is fresh, the forests and meadows expansive. We have year-round recreation along with rich history and culture. For many, visiting here is a dream vacation. And so it is no wonder that tourism is the backbone of the Tahoe Basin economy.

With 3 million visitors coming here annually, however, this raises questions among some as to whether it is possible for restoration efforts at Lake Tahoe to be successful if the economy is to remain vibrant.

Many of our natural places have run the risk of being loved to death. Three million visitors a year, for example, pass through Yosemite Valley ” so many that a decade ago the exhaust from idling vehicles sitting in traffic there had been known to rival that found in a metropolitan center.

By encouraging more visitors to stage in Yosemite gateway towns and use alternative transportation to enter the Valley, however, the situation has improved but not without great effort by national park service planners and the communities surrounding Yosemite.

In Lake Tahoe, the situation is different and more complex. Because the Basin is not a national park, there is no entry fee and no toll gate. The Lake is ringed by state and federal highways connecting communities that pride themselves on the unique character and authentic flavor each brings to the Tahoe experience.

At one time, Nevada gaming was a mainstay of the visitor experience at Tahoe, but the proliferation of Indian gaming in California has contributed to declining revenues here. Snow and water sports, being both seasonal and weather sensitive, have not always been enough to keep the Basin’s hotel rooms booked, restaurants busy, and shopping areas with adequate foot traffic. When the Red Hawk Casino opened last December in El Dorado County off U.S. Highway 50 at Shingle Springs, south shore gaming properties in particular were concerned that competition off the hill would take a bigger bite out of business in the Basin.

With the economy in a state of disarray all around and a dismal start to the snow season, it may take a while to sort out just how much of an impact Red Hawk has had: but business is slow all around. Just ask anybody. Which brings us once again to the triple bottom line: Without a healthy economy and without adequately addressing the social well being of the Tahoe Basin, the Lake will continue to suffer.

Our best hope for a successful restoration is for the visitors and the tourism industry to participate collaboratively. This is why resort properties are talking about reinventing themselves so that they are less dependent on gaming and can provide a better rounded visitor experience with the Lake as a center attraction. As properties redevelop, the private sector is able to invest in advanced stormwater treatment systems and other infrastructure that will help restore Lake clarity and improve the natural environment along with the built environment. Another important aspect of this will be a bigger focus on sustainable tourism.

Two years ago, the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations gave the Lake Tahoe Basin a less than flattering review when analyzing the degree to which environmental, historic and cultural resources are promoted as part of the visitor experience here. Naturally, there was some push back from those of us who couldn’t help but take the jab personally.

But since then, business and tourism officials have started taking a more serious look at sustainable tourism and what it can mean to Tahoe. One day we may have to ask our visitors to help foot the bill for taking Lake Tahoe restoration to the next level. This could include a Tahoe day pass for vehicles. Tourists who come to Tahoe for a more complete experience will be more likely to help. It’s part of the recipe for success in Tahoe, and we need to be ready for it when it comes time for the talk to turn to action.

John Singlaub is Executive Director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. For more information, visit http://www.trpa.org.


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