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Lake Tahoe and the Growing Importance for Environmental Preservation

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Lake 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

Table 1

Socioeconomic Data for the Lake Tahoe Basin

Socioeconomic 1950 1960 1950-1960 Change (in %) 1970 1960-1970 Change (in %) 2000


Basin Totals 110,331 174,909 58.5 249,573 42.7 62,891

Summer Population 133,000 200,000

Housing: 1990 2000

Housing units total: 43,662 46,122 N/A N/A N/A N/A

Total vacant housing: 22,509 20,574 N/A N/A N/A N/A

Vacant housing for seasonal, recreational, occasional use: 14,731 18,257 N/A N/A N/A N/A

Median single-family housing prices: $119,000 $285,000 N/A N/A N/A N/A

Mailing address of homeowner:

Outside of area (in %): 54 N/A N/A N/A N/A

Greater Tahoe area (in %): 28 N/A N/A N/A N/A

Lake Tahoe region (in %): 18 N/A N/A N/A N/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



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