INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Lake Tahoe doesn’t only have skiing, boating and gaming to offer its visitors — it has a lot more by way of outdoor, low carbon footprint excursions.
Sustainable Tahoe, a nonprofit organization that launched in January 2010 to promote the stewardship of Lake Tahoe and its surrounding watershed, is trying to prove just that by connecting visitors with the land, water, wildlife and culture, among other elements, unique to the area.
“We’ve been putting out a certain menu of activities sine 1950, and visitors won’t ask, they’ll just assume that that’s what there is to do,” said Jacquie Chandler, executive director and founding member of Sustainable Tahoe. “We’re, clearly, trying to do a makeover on this menu and expand it.”
To showcase what that expanded, sustainable menu could look like, Sustainable Tahoe — an all-volunteer group — has been putting on the annual Tahoe Expo each September since 2011, featuring interactive, educational and low-carbon activities.
Plans for the 2013 Tahoe Expo are already under way Chandler said, and will include popular excursions (or “tracks,” as the group calls them) such as the Early Birds and Bear Track, in which bird and bear experts share their knowledge with participants in the animals’ habitat; and the Marsh to Meadow Track, in which participants kayak into the upper Truckee River followed by an upstream look at the meadows. New this year is a Woodland Fairy Track, an educational forest walk, and another track that will show participants all aspects of geothermal energy and its use.
“We really want to enhance people’s ideas of what the sense of place is around here, so by doing that, people develop more respect for it,” said John Hara, chair of the board of directors and founding member. “If you develop more respect about it, then your behavior toward that area changes.”
The Tahoe Expo plays into the larger concept of geotourism — tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place, including its environment, culture, heritage and the wellbeing of its residents.
While geotourism is being recognized within the basin, Hara said it has not reached critical mass, a point in which Lake Tahoe will be defined by its “eight worlds” — sky, water, wildlife, plants, land, community, culture and heritage.
“We are at the point now where we’re providing the model,” he said. “We’re starting to put together the demo, and hopefully, the community at some point in time will start to adopt this model, this template on their own.”
Chandler said geotourism is “critical” to Lake Tahoe’s future.
“If we don’t host the water in a way that sustains it in the future, we won’t have this place,” said she, her enthusiasm for the subject evident. “You’ll have a lake, but you won’t have Lake Tahoe.”
Chandler said the region’s current branding is expensive not only to the environment, but in dollars, both in cleanup and lost revenue opportunities.
“Wildlife doesn’t charge, but people eat, sleep and shop waiting for wildlife, so that’s a lot of money that we’re missing,” she said, citing that grizzly bear viewing in British Columbia generates nearly $7 million annually for the province.
But in order for geotourism to work, collaboration among organizations, governments and agencies, and businesses is key, Chandler said.
By governments and agencies allowing access to sensitive areas, organization guides can teach the public about those areas to ensure their protection, while businesses provide equipment, food and lodging, thereby generating revenue.
The Tahoe Expo uses that collaborative model to put on its events.
For example, at the 2012 Tahoe Expo, nonprofits No Bear Hunt Nevada and the BEAR League, with assistance from Tour de Tahoe, put on Bear Hug Around the Lake, in which cyclists gave bear hugs to people around the lake to raise public awareness of how to live in harmony with the region’s black bears.
“The Sustainable Tahoe’s Expo is a premier event,” said Kathryn Bricker, executive director of No Bear Hunt Nevada. “I hope it sets a standard for tourism and sustainability that many models will follow.”
Chandler said the organization has about a dozen core volunteers, with its ranks swelling as the Tahoe Expo draws nearer.
“Largely, that’s what we’ve been surviving on, those few thousand dollars (about $20,000 in the 2011-12 fiscal year from individuals and private entities) and just the volunteer efforts of everybody,” Hara said. “People are driven by passion to come here and work and do things for us and provide services in kind.”
Other campaigns Sustainable Tahoe is working on include getting green vessels on the lake that can be used not only for transportation, but for research and education purposes; and developing a software application called Sustainable Travel Adventure Network to help people create their own tracks.
“Where we’re hoping to eventually arrive is as an organization that can help facilitate these types of tracks in a way that come together in a really convenient and natural way where we don’t have to explain all about the framework, where it’s much simpler,” Hara said. “We’re heading there, and eventually, we’ll get there.”
“You’ll have a lake, but you won’t have Lake Tahoe.”
Sustainable Tahoe, executive director