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A look at government history at Lake Tahoe

Mary Thompson

“Oh! the exquisite beauty of the Lake – its clear waters, emerald-green, and the deepest ultramarine blue; its pure shores … the high granite mountains, with serried peaks, which stand close around its very shore to guard its crystal purity – this Lake, not among, but on, the mountains, lifted six thousand feet towards the deep-blue overarching sky, whose image it reflects!”

– Joseph LeConte , University of California geology professor, Aug. 20, 1870., from “Lake Tahoe, Lake of the Sky,” by George Wharton James.

Working on the tardy tempo of the geologic time clock, Tahoe’s mountain scenery has changed little since Joseph LeConte led his geology students to the lake’s shores in 1870.



Looking at Mt. Tallac’s craggy face, we see the same deep ravines that LeConte saw more than a century ago – only we share those views with thousands of people.

“Populations soared from 100 or 200 year-round residents at the turn of the century to the 55,000 residents we have living in the basin now,” said Don Lane, U.S. Forest Service historian. “That increased the demand for more government services and it became a more complex place to manage.”



During the 19th and 20th centuries, the area surrounding Lake Tahoe transformed from a lightly populated, lawless land to a highly regulated, protected preserve.

The Lawless Land

As California’s gold rush of 1849 started to fizzle, gold and silver mining east of Carson City began to swell.

The Lake Tahoe Basin provided a seemingly endless source of timber that was used for supports in the miles of underground tunnels in Virginia City’s Comstock Lode, which produced more than $300 million in gold and silver in a 20-year span in the later half of the 1800s, according to local historian Lyn Landauer.

Tahoe’s massive conifers were being severed into stumps, without government regulation.

“Most of the areas around the South Shore were ruled by El Dorado County, and there was a push at one time to break off the east slope into a separate county,” she said. “Other than that there wasn’t much of a government.”

That’s because on the other side of the California state line, there was no Nevada.

It was part of the Utah Territory until about 1861, when it became the Nevada Territory and nine counties, including Douglas County, were established, according to Douglas County records. In 1864, three years later, Nevada became a state.

The eastern California state line was conceptualized in 1849 and mapped in 1855, when it became clear that the boundary divided Lake Tahoe.

The Federal Reserves

The push for preservation started 100 years ago, after the boom of the Nevada’s Comstock dwindled.

Lane said efforts to protect the basin were sparked in the 1800s when Nathan Gilmore, a cattle rancher who founded Glen Alpine Springs at the eastern edge of what is now called Desolation Wilderness, rallied for the purchase of public lands. “When Gilmore heard of Lucky Baldwin’s plans to log the area around Fallen Leaf Lake, he enlisted and received support from California and Nevada governors and the Sierra Club, which was just getting going then,” Lane said. “This set the stage for the first public lands in the basin.”

In 1899, 136,000 acres of Forest Reserves were set aside, untouchable to timber harvesters, on the southwest end of the lake.

“They actually called it the Devil’s Basin and most of it has become Desolation Wilderness,” Lane said. “The Forest Service didn’t exist at the time, it was the General Land Office but suddenly the government realized it had an obligation to protect those lands for the public.”

Early in the 20th century, the Forest Service, as a national agency, was born.

Lane said preservationists Gifford Pinchot and John Muir helped shaped the agency’s policy to help protect national treasures and embrace multiple use.

In the basin’s case, Lane said early Forest Service presence was devoted to protection against wildland fires and trail building.

“In 1925, before roads were really built, the Forest Service crews had a boat that they would use to get around the lake,” he said. “They had fire lookouts and the crews provided some of the first telephone lines through the basin so that the fires could be called in.”

In the next 75 years, the agency continued to acquire land, becoming the largest land management agency in the basin.

“But there was some missed opportunity too,” Lane said. “In the 1970s, the Tahoe Keys were being sold for a $1.50 an acre but at that time the government wasn’t paying that much for swamp land.”

In 1973, the Forest Service combined the three forests established in the basin to form one management authority, called the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

“They’ve evaluated a couple of times since then and decided that it still makes the most sense,” Lane said. “But in Congress’ eyes we’re still three forests because it literally takes an act of Congress to move forest boundary lines.”

Counties, Cities and Townships

Other than growing in size to match the basin’s influx of residents, government has seen little change since Douglas County was formed in 1861, according to Douglas County Library records. Lake settlements such as Glenbrook, Zephyr Cove, Round Hill and Stateline, which are absent of city governments, still fall under the county’s rule.

El Dorado County, California’s first established county, ruled the land west of the state line at South Shore until organization of the city of South Lake Tahoe materialized in 1965.

City records show that residents passed the city’s incorporation in a November 1965 election, 2,011-614. It is the only city government in the basin.

In the years following its creation, newspaper reports show the city was busy activating city resources – offering snow removal services, employing fire crews and hiring for a police force.

“I am not sure how the city boundary was drawn,” City Clerk Angela Peterson said. “But it’s too bad that Meyers and areas in the county weren’t included at the time.”

Outside the city limits, area neighborhoods such as Tahoe Paradise, Christmas Valley and Meyers are governed by El Dorado County.

With direction coming from city, county, state and federal government, the basin made room for one more government entity – the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Organized in 1969 as a response to increased development, the TRPA acts as the basin’s bi-state regulatory authority, created by Congress.

“With the expansion of gaming, the promoting of Tahoe as a year-round destination and the visibility of the Olympic games at Squaw Valley in 1960, a new period of development was opened,” Lane said. “That increased the demand for more public services – more schools, police, fire and sewer.”

Government in the Lake Tahoe Basin:

– California: 1850

– El Dorado County: 1850

– Douglas County: 1861

– Nevada: 1864

– Forest Reserves: 1890s

– U.S. Forest Service: 1905

– Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit: 1973

– City of South Lake Tahoe: 1965

– Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: 1968


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