The trash photos went viral soon after the Fourth of July. Surely, you saw them. The beaches of Zephyr Shoals, an unmanaged stretch of beach on Tahoe’s east shore, looked like a dumping ground, scattered with coolers, cans, food wrappers, towels, shoes, and discarded tents. Volunteer crews organized by the League to Save Lake Tahoe collected 8,500 pounds, with 6,279 from the Zephyr beach alone, of garbage on the sand and in the water around the Basin on July 5.
By all accounts, we’ve reached a tipping point in Tahoe. During peak times in winter and summer, roadways around the region are jammed with cars, making access to popular places like ski resorts and select beaches nearly impossible.
“In the height of summer, it’s hard to get a spot at a restaurant or drive from one side of town to the other,” says Dave Wilderotter, a Tahoe City resident who opened his first Tahoe Dave’s ski shop in 1977 and now owns six shops in the area. “It’s not that there are just more people here, it’s that our mindset is different. It used to be more of a community feel. I don’t want to lock the gates to Tahoe, but it’s hard to imagine that we need more advertising to get people to come. We are slowly losing our quality of life.”
Last November, Fodor’s put Lake Tahoe on its list of places not to visit in 2023, due to its “people problem.”
In June, a collective of 17 area groups unveiled the new Lake Tahoe Destination Stewardship Plan, which reported that the total number of visitor days in 2022 was almost 17 million (see p.15 for how plan authors reached that number).
“To put this into perspective the region’s land mass is roughly one-third the size of Yosemite National Park, yet receives approximately three times the amount of visitation,” the report read. “According to a recent visitor use monitoring survey, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) received 9.5 million visits in 2015 and 5.9 million in 2020.” In contrast, Yosemite reported 2.7 million visits in 2022 (though numbers as high as 5 million have been seen in the last decade).
The status quo is not working. Before this plan was in place, I used to joke that we ran Tahoe like a giant resort where sales and marketing never got to talk to operations.”
~ Amy Berry, Tahoe Fund CEO
Though it may feel more crowded than ever, some numbers don’t necessarily show that. Our population has increased since 2020, but visitor numbers are actually down. This July, North Lake Tahoe saw 2.26 million visitor days, according to data from the North Tahoe Community Alliance (NTCA), which is lower than pre-Covid times.
The litter problem is decidedly deplorable, though there is a silver lining. The league reported in a press release that the amount of trash cleaned up on July 5 was “tragically an all-time high on this, the 10th anniversary of Tahoe’s largest litter cleanup event.” However, several beaches were not trashed, such as Commons Beach and the Kings Beach State Recreation Area, which the organization attributed to the fact that these locations have trash cans, restrooms, and management staff. The forest service announced in mid-July that Zephyr Shoals will be managed by a third-party concessionaire beginning this fall.
“If you’d taken that one beach out of the equation, the headlines would have been ‘Tahoe’s Beaches Are The Cleanest They’ve Ever Been on July 5.’ People went out to volunteer and there wasn’t much garbage to pick up,” says Amy Berry, CEO of the Tahoe Fund.
Still, the pressure of rising crowds remains. How do we preserve Lake Tahoe’s $4.5 billion tourism economy while still protecting the quality of life and reducing environmental impact on the lake and region? That’s a question area land managers and tourism organizations are working hard to figure out.
The Lake Tahoe Destination Stewardship Plan, a 143-page framework for tourism management, marks the first time many of the participating organizations have collaborated on stewardship goals. The plan, which took two years to establish, involves forming a Lake Tahoe Stewardship Council and focuses on solutions ranging from responsible marketing to transportation.
“The status quo is not working,” Berry says. “Before this plan was in place, I used to joke that we ran Tahoe like a giant resort where sales and marketing never got to talk to operations. Because of the stewardship plan, we’re all on the same page. This plan was not put in place to create another plan. It’s about getting work done.”
The new stewardship plan focuses on ramping up management practices — like traffic handlers, portable restrooms, and communication efforts — during known peak times. It also prioritizes making Tahoe a welcoming, accessible place for everyone. “People assume the tourism goal has been to bring in as many tourists as possible, but it’s about quality over quantity,” adds Berry. “This has to be the pivotal moment that shifts our way of thinking.”
In fact, tourism agencies that once focused on marketing the Lake Tahoe and Truckee areas as tourist destinations now have renewed missions that focus on destination management. Instead of spending dollars to draw in more visitors, education and stewardship have become the new priorities in an attempt to create a tourism economy that gives back to the local community. There are also continued efforts to spread visitors out to less-trafficked zones and encourage them to visit during off-peak times.
“We’re still marketing; however, it looks completely different,” says Kirstin Guinn, marketing director for the NTCA. “In the past, our marketing focused on bringing people to Lake Tahoe. Now, our marketing is mostly stewardship messaging.” That communication includes everything you’ve likely seen in the Take Care Tahoe campaign: reminding people to drink tap water instead of buying plastic water bottles, to pick up dog waste and trash, and to slow down while driving.
The NTCA, formerly known as the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, changed direction and name in February 2023 to focus on tourism mitigation versus tourism generation. NTCA is funded by a tourism self-assessment fee (known as TBID revenues), which comes from lodging, short-term rentals, retail, restaurants, and other recreation services.
In September, the NTCA Board voted to reinvest over $20 million in funds generated from Transient Occupancy Tax (or TOT) — which they advise the Placer County Board of Supervisors on how to spend — and TBID revenues into 17 projects ranging from workforce housing developments to transit solutions like TART Connect, bike path redevelopment, and winter park-and-ride efforts. Micro-solutions include smart fixes like beach-cleaning robots and solar-powered trash compactors. Including matching funds, the organization intends to put $55 million over the next three years into select mitigation efforts.
“We’re not trying to take Lake Tahoe away from people. We’re trying to bring people to the area who will protect it,” adds Guinn.
In the long term, transportation agencies are looking at transit priority lanes on busy roadways like Highway 89 and Highway 267. But we’ll need a cultural shift to make that work.
“How do we move away from a car-dependent society and into one where you drive cars less and you ride transit more? That’s not an overnight switch,” says Stephanie Holloway, deputy CEO from the Placer County Executive Office.
Transit and traffic have long been thorns in the side of a region with crisscrossing jurisdictional lines. Currently an effort known as the 7-7-7 plan, spearheaded by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, is aiming to build a consortium of federal, state, local/private partnership seeking $7 million annually from each of the three entities to address the issue. The attempt, which has identified $400 million worth of unfunded transit priorities in the region, remains in discussion among the different sectors.
Making the switch to fewer cars on the road may require installing limits. In response to intense ski traffic jams last winter, Placer County hosted a multi-agency meeting in February to address the issue. Eight months later, Palisades Tahoe recently unveiled plans for a new parking reservation system for this winter that aims to reduce traffic woes on Highway 89. The reservation system will require weekend travelers to book a parking spot in advance.
“Traffic has been one of the major challenges our entire region has faced for decades. We’ve implemented a variety of communication tools, programs and systems to try to improve the situation over the years, but the cumulative effect hasn’t produced the type of result needed to make significant change,” Dee Byrne, Palisades Tahoe president and COO, said in a statement. “After careful consideration and research, we’re confident this program will improve the arrival and departure experience, and have a positive impact on the ease with which our entire community gets around during peak periods.”
Meanwhile, micro-transit programs such as TART Connect and Mountaineer servicing Olympic Valley and Alpine Meadows, are proving to be popular, with operating schedules expanding year after year.
The biggest mindset shift needs to happen in how we approach the tourism issue. In a survey by Visit Truckee-Tahoe conducted in June 2023, just 7% of North Tahoe residents said they think the balance of attracting overnight visitors and managing impacts seems about right, and 4% of responders said they’d like more visitor promotions so that we get more of the positive impacts of tourism.
“The biggest challenge is this us versus them mentality. It infuses this negativity around who gets to play, who gets priority, who gets access? It creates a divide,” adds Holloway. “The challenge is understanding that tourism is part and parcel with our economic livelihood. Although we might think tourism is a bad thing, it’s a good thing if we can execute balance. We need to come together, and that means everyone.”
A great place to live is a great place to visit, it’s a cycle. One needs the other.”
~ Colleen Dalton,
Visit Truckee-Tahoe CEO
So, can residents welcome visitors and offer guidance, instead of seeing too many tourists as a threat to our way of life? And can visitors study up and make choices that benefit the community they’re visiting?
To address user conflicts on paved paths, a collaborative effort this summer stenciled messages in chalk onto trails reminding people to share.
Groups are also experimenting with face-to-face interactions. In 2021, Visit Truckee-Tahoe, which was formed in 2020 to serve as a destination management organization, launched the Trail Host Ambassador program, funded by VTT and managed by the Truckee Trails Foundation. The project stationed trail hosts at popular trailheads to educate and inform trail users about responsible recreation, while keeping an eye out for illegal campfires. This summer, Take Care Tahoe ambassadors — who were mostly local high school students hired by regional agencies — wore signature vests at popular tourist spots like beaches and parks and answered questions, handed out dog waste bags, and greeted visitors with a smile.
“A great place to live is a great place to visit, it’s a cycle. One needs the other,” says Colleen Dalton, CEO of Visit Truckee-Tahoe. “We know that if we don’t protect this place, people won’t come.”
Just ask Dave Wilderotter, owner of Tahoe Dave’s, what he does when he can’t get from point A to point B.
“Take a deep breath when it’s crowded,” Wilderotter advises. “If you’re bent out of shape because there’s too many people, wait a month and it’ll settle down. Or go for a hike on a trail that isn’t so popular.”
~ Megan Michelson, a Tahoe City-based freelance writer and editor got her start in journalism in Tahoe, then left for a decade to work at Outside Magazine, Skiing Magazine, and espn.com. She returned in 2012 and is teaching her two kids to pick up litter, ski on storm days, and hike farther than they want to.