Both this summer and last, crowds in the Tahoe/Truckee outdoors have wreaked havoc with litter, toilet, noise, parking, trespassing, traffic, erosion, and the pollution of air and water. Would the problems disappear if visitor numbers were limited, or if tourism promoters were defunded? Or can they be solved by other means — through greater infrastructure funding, for example, or via new collaborative measures? Groups tackling these questions are using the term “sustainable recreation. The expression’s ambiguity leaves room for many interpretations. Here’s how some local groups are calling it:

SHOWING THE WAY: Signs and maps on the Lake Tahoe Water Trail help boaters exploring the circumference of the lake know how to plan their trip and reduce their impacts. Photo courtesy Sierra Business Council

Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: Seeing the growth of outdoor recreation and nearby population centers, in 2018 TRPA convened agencies, private entities, and nonprofits to improve human behaviors affecting traffic, safety, pollution, and more. In a nod to the tight link between tourism and recreation, they call themselves the Lake Tahoe Sustainable Recreation and Tourism Working Group. Two arms of the group meet every other week, working on issues of land management and user messaging. Devin Middlebrook, TRPA’s sustainability project manager, and Jeff Cowen, TRPA’s public information officer, point to the group’s success in influencing parts of the recent passage of the SR 89 Recreation Corridor Management Plan, which calls for boosted public transit, spread-out visitor use patterns, and parking improvements, among other things. “The Lake Tahoe Basin is experiencing extraordinary visitation,” Cowen said, “complete with careless behavior, crowded access points, frustrated residents, new patterns of visitor use, and strained resources. The need for a more sustainable recreation and tourism future for Tahoe has never been more evident.”

Truckee Dirt Union: Near the intersection of West River Road and California State Route 89, the Jackass Ridge mountain biking trail has become a mecca — maybe even a rite of passage — for riders. The trail was forged many years ago by locals, and had a core group of riders who rode through the forest in small numbers, said Matt Chappell, founding member of Truckee Dirt Union. Now, the trail can see between 3,500 and 5,000 riders in one week, he said. Truckee Dirt Union, a citizen-driven organization that formed last year in response to this growing impact, aims to help improve, shape, and maintain top-shelf singletracks around town to minimize erosion and protect artifacts and sensitive habitats, Chappell said. It mobilizes a volunteer trail force to work on improvement projects every month along with the US Forest Service, local businesses, and the Truckee Trails Foundation.


Truckee Donner Land Trust: This nonprofit, based in Truckee, has long worked primarily to preserve open space, but is increasingly managing recreation sites such as a campground at Webber Lake and various trails and open space preserves near Truckee. Recently, it joined the Sustainable Truckee Outdoor Recreation Collaborative along with the new Truckee visitors bureau, Nevada County, the airport district, and other groups in hopes of reducing damages from over-recreation. The planned Truckee Springs development on West River Road may do just that, said the land trust’s Greyson Howard. Trails linking to downtown Truckee may encourage people to strike out on foot or wheel and leave their cars behind. Trails, paved parking pads, and a bridge over the river will reduce erosion.

WATER CLOG: Usage along the Truckee River explodes every summer. Photos by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink

Tahoe Backcountry Alliance: Trailheads and fossil fuels are on the radar for Tahoe Backcountry Alliance, too. Greg Garrison, the alliance’s executive director, said this winter his group will offer a “micro-transit” service from primary  transportation hubs like the Tahoe City Transit Center to backcountry skiing trailheads, where congestions of parked cars have frustrated plow drivers and skiers alike. Accessibility is another of the group’s priorities. “The best way to convince people that public lands are valuable and should be protected is to show them how much fun you can have on them and how to recreate responsibly,” Garrison said. 

Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship: Building trails across three forest service management units from Truckee to Chester, the nonprofit has shifted from being mostly a trail developer to also an infrastructure advocate. In its Claremont Planning Project south of Quincy, the group plans to build 45 miles of new trail. It is collaborating with the USFS Mt. Hough Ranger District to make sure the added infrastructure — bathrooms, parking, trash cans — support the number of trail users. “We’re trying to think more creatively about where we want people, and how they access public lands,” said Mandy Beatty, the Sierra Buttes trails manager. “We decided the top goal was the infrastructure to support the trail. That’s broadening the lens to what sustainable recreation means.” 

League to Save Lake Tahoe: The Tahoe Blue Crew volunteer trash pickup program has grown dramatically. At the end of 2019 after the program’s launch, 18 volunteers participated. As of this July, there were 113. That means that this year more than 6,000 pounds of trash were gathered from Lake Tahoe’s beaches and trails, according to Jesse Patterson, the League’s chief strategy officer. “Sustainable recreation is the ability to recreate as we want, but doing it in a way that actually doesn’t degrade (a place), and leaves it better for the person coming after,” Patterson said. The Blue Crew expansion indicates many things: more volunteers, more businesses, agencies and organizations setting up trash-pickup programs, more places being cared for, and less litter. “That’s the groundswell of change we’ve all been hoping for,” Patterson said. 

Sierra Business Council: The Sierra Business Council manages the Lake Tahoe Water Trail, a shoreline route that mimics the Tahoe Rim Trail but is entirely on water. This year, a new map helps users plan for and get oriented to the route, which can be tackled by single-day users or in multiple days with camping or lodging overnights. The trail gets recreationists one step closer to using fewer natural resources for entertainment, said Kristin York, the council’s vice president of economic empowerment. “We live on a finite planet, and, yes, we do have regenerative resources, but we’re using them to a point that well outpaces their ability to regenerate,” York said. “Fresh water is a great example. When we extract water faster than aquifers and lakes can replenish from natural cycles, eventually they go dry, become stagnant, or are too low to access for fresh water, irrigation, or hydropower.”

PEOPLE APLENTY: Local agencies and organizations build and maintain trails to serve a growing number of outdoors-lovers.

Alpenglow Sports: Brendan Madigan, owner of this gear shop in Tahoe City, said ideas for achieving sustainable recreation are constantly circulating in his mind. Carbon-neutral goals are hard to achieve, especially when you’re putting on events that ask people to drive to Tahoe for them, he said. “The reality is, the events have an undeniable positive and negative footprint.” He hopes to join a project called Climate Neutral by pledging to balance carbon emissions. A primary focus for Alpenglow has been its own nonprofit called the Donor Party, formed in part to support cutting environmental impacts. “The goal of the Donor Party is to actively encourage those visitors and locals with the financial means to subsidize the local economy,” Madigan said. Raised moneys have gone to the Sierra Avalanche Center and Adventure Risk Challenge, among other local nonprofits. “I firmly believe that is the way to help some of the issues here, and should be the bedrock of how destination economies function.”

Do plans for sustainable recreation also include efforts to limit visitors? That option didn’t forefront any of these discussions; but it is clearly not far in the background. For now, most recreation-related groups are focused on managing behavior and impacts and establishing more public places in which the escalating numbers of Tahoe/Truckee outdoors-lovers can engage with nature. What will the future deliver? As we’ve witnessed in the past 18-plus months, forecasting that is nearly impossible. 


  • Laura Read

    A 32-year Lake Tahoe resident, Laura Read is a freelance writer and editor who's published essays, travel stories, and features in Moonshine Ink, the San Francisco Chronicle, National Geographic Traveler, Sierra, MIT Technology Review, The Furrow, and others. She edited the Wolfdale's Cuisine Unique cookbook by Douglas Dale and copy edited Hans Burkhart's memoir, Above and Beyond - My Life Giving the World a Lift. She lives in Tahoe City.

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