Could you imagine the pristine forested landscape around the Lake Tahoe Basin replaced by high-rise buildings and housing developments in a city the size of San Francisco? The winding scenic roads surrounding the lake replaced with high-speed freeways and a bridge across Emerald Bay? Such was the plan in the late 1960s following two decades of rapid growth — and it would have come to fruition without the Tahoe Bi-State Compact that led to the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. But as times have changed so has the way TRPA has had to address development in the Basin.

For thousands of years, majestic Lake Tahoe sat in its pristine, unadulterated glory. Until European-American explorers “discovered” its existence around the mid-19th century. Once the Comstock Lode was revealed in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1859, the explosion of the mining and railroad industries led to mass deforestation in the area. It is estimated that more than 80% of the Basin’s forests were clear-cut during the 1860s as the timber was used to build mine shafts and fast-growing developments.

By the early 1900s there were several failed attempts to designate the Tahoe Basin a national park as conservationists began to take note of the changing landscape. As the 20th century wore on, development around the lake continued to boom and people started to become concerned. Something had to be done before the beauty of the Basin was lost forever and the lake’s renowned clarity was clouded over.

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Dwight Steele and Coe Swobe were the vocal visionaries who drew awareness to the pollution and development that were detrimental to the lake’s legacy.

“These were the folks that made the change happen … but they didn’t know the work they were doing was going to make such an impact,” said TRPA public information officer Jeff Cowen.

A senator from Nevada, Swobe was known as the “father of the Tahoe Bi-State Compact.” An agreement between then-Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan, and their respective state legislatures, the 1969 bi-state compact created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency. Steele was also an early pioneer in the push to preserve Lake Tahoe. A labor lawyer turned environmental activist, Steele was heavily involved with the nonprofit organization League to Save Lake Tahoe. He led the fight to end the dumping of septic system wastewater and illegal pumping in the lake during the late 1960s and served in various capacities including board member, president, and general counsel from 1967 to 2002. Steele also was a TRPA board member in the late 1970s and ’80s.

The goal of the Bi-State Compact was to create a regional planning agency that would use science as its guide when it came to development around the Lake Tahoe Basin, limiting building on sensitive lands, overseeing erosion control, and implementing a system to manage growth. The agency even led the push to preserve the lake’s signature clarity with measures such as passing the nation’s first ban on two-stroke marine engines. While there was great recognition for all of the TRPA’s individual accomplishments, the relationship between conservationists and private landowners grew strained; finding the right balance proved to be a most precarious task.

“There was a lot of animosity between the two sides,” explained Cowen. ‘’In [1969, 1970], everyone had the perspective that it was all good … but it wasn’t. TRPA was trying to be the big shot, calling the shots and telling everyone else how it was going to be.”

DECADE OF DESTRUCTION: The Lake Tahoe Basin was largely stripped of its age-old forested beauty over the course of just 10 years.

All development plans and proposals had to go through the TRPA. At that time, the board had a rule that if members didn’t vote on a matter before them within 60 days, it was automatically approved.

“This is how we have some of the high rises we see today,” Cowen said, noting the trademark towering casinos found in South Lake Tahoe. “Obviously, it was a little bit flawed.”

But for the agency, it has always been a classic case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Going into the 1980s, the TRPA issued two separate moratoriums on nearly all new residential construction within the Basin while it worked to hash out updates to its regional plan. The measures were eventually challenged in court by a group of individual landowners who were subject to the moratoria. They challenged that they should receive just compensation under the Takings Clause of the US Constitution in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, on the grounds that they were being denied use of their land.

The initial court found in favor of the plaintiffs but the case was appealed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The circuit court ruled that the plaintiffs were only temporarily impacted and no compensation was in order.

Then, in 1984, on the day the governing board adopted a long-range plan, two parties filed suit claiming the measure didn’t go far enough to protect the lake. A judge issued a moratorium on building while a more stringent agreement was drafted. Following three years of negotiations, the lawsuit was settled and the 1987 regional plan was adopted.

By the 1990s, it became apparent that although the action plan the TRPA had been following was making progress, fixing Lake Tahoe one project at a time wasn’t enough. The agency needed to take a holistic approach for preserving the lake and its surrounding landscape. As development patterns and environmental threats evolved, the agency had to do the same.

In bygone eras, “streams had been straightened, meadows turned into grazing land or developed, and the forests were unhealthy because of fire suppression practices,” Cowen remarked.

TRPA had to find a way to fix the mistakes of the past. The result was the Lake Tahoe Environmental Improvement Program, which included some 700 restoration and capital improvement projects that would further reduce fine sediment entering the lake, improve air quality by reducing reliance on the private automobile, and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, among other things.

“It’s one of the most comprehensive and ambitious restoration programs in the nation,” Cowen said.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton and Congress got behind the push and passed the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, promising $300 million. But again, the TRPA was caught between developers and private landowners. There was a sentiment that, after the act was implemented, the requirements of a home improvement project or commercial building upgrade were so prohibitive that reinvestment slowed and Tahoe’s town centers were becoming rundown and locked into a 1950s, car-centric pattern of development, Cowen explained. It was a point of reckoning when it was realized, he said, that legacy development had caused more harm than new construction was
apt to.

By the time the agency’s regional plan was to again be revisited, in 2007, TRPA began working with environmental groups, local governments, private property advocates, and the states on procedures and policies that make permitting and redevelopment easier. The update, Restoring Lake Tahoe and Supporting Sustainable Communities, was approved in 2012, with “environmental redevelopment” becoming the phrase for packaging together incentives, more local control over planning and permitting, and air and water quality investments.

land mine: Some of the timber stripped from the Lake Tahoe Basin was used to construct mine shafts following the 1859 discovery of the Comstock Lode in Virginia City. Photos courtesy TRPA

“The 2012 regional plan calls for TRPA to constantly improve and evaluate,” said Cowen, noting that the ever-changing environmental challenges require this nimbleness. “Water quality improvements could be impacted by climate change. Also, forest health, aquatic invasive species, increasing visitation pressures, a housing crisis, have to be a major focus today. The health of the watershed can be affected by a variety of impacts and we can only answer our mandate by keeping them all on the dashboard.”

In November 2020, TRPA took a look back at its history, celebrating a half-century of collaboration and recognizing key individuals and organizations for their contributions during each of the agency’s five decades, with the Spirit of TRPA awards.

“Over 50 years, we’ve all become better and better at practicing TRPA’s core value of collaboration,” TRPA Executive Director Joanne S. Marchetta commented in a recent email to Moonshine Ink. “Only constant vigilance to build, nurture, and reinforce collaborative relationships protects Lake Tahoe.”

Marchetta, who started out as legal counsel for the agency in 2005, recognized the need for change and upon becoming executive director in 2009 moved toward shifting the agency to a more collective perspective.

“I can honestly say that Tahoe’s successes have not ever come from reinforcing divisions. ‘Us vs. them’ is purely a state of mind because our interests are all connected,” she said. “In Tahoe, a healthy environment depends on strong communities and a resilient economy. That’s why every day we invite partners, old and new, to join with us in finding common ground for the benefit of our lake and our communities. The only way we find our solutions across all those interests is through strong collaboration.”

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