Enough: Tourism agencies can learn from Henry David Thoreau

Kurt Green / Columnist
Kurt Green

For months now, I have been fretting over what summer 2023 will be like in the Tahoe Basin.
Like our long awaited Spring, the signs are everywhere we turn. In anticipation, I’ve been reading Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” and speculating what he might say to us today, much like he articulated his concerns to the citizens of Concord over 150 years ago. Like me, I think he would be critical, if not angry, at the present state of the lakes, both once touchstones of transcendent beauty and spirituality that are now floundering under the stewardship of those hired to protect them and those desirous of exploiting them for financial gain.

While I know there are many different reasons behind each of our motivations to live in Tahoe, I hope there can be a measure of agreement with Thoreau’s motivation behind his “experiment”
at Walden Pond.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau’s intent was to reveal the spiritual (transcendental) found in nature every day to a town that had become caught up in its material pursuits. Consequently, his first chapter was devoted to a contemplation of “Economy.” The New Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines economy as “The structure or conditions of economic life in a country, area, or period.”

This definition fits Concord in the 1840s and Tahoe in the 2020s, as both have identifiable economic structures and conditions. Thoreau identified in “Walden” that for many in Concord the primary, if not the only, pursuit was for what he defined as the necessities of livelihood “food, shelter, clothing, and fuel.” For Thoreau, the separation point that he makes to the Concordians is that “…to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship, but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely.”

To his neighbors, his admonition is to moderate this all-consuming pursuit of things or possessions that ultimately result in “the mass of men lead[ing] lives of quiet desperation… in accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even.”

I believe that Thoreau would similarly advise us that the key to living a “transcendent” life in
Tahoe is “simplicity, simplicity, simplicity:” clearness about what our necessities really are. Unfortunately, the trend in Tahoe to bring visitors and their tourist dollars to the basin regardless of the consequences has clearly revealed what many in this community truly value. Aggressive marketing of the Tahoe Basin is not new, nor are the problems that tag along.

An article in “The Union” 8 years ago (12/27/2015) states “Each year the Lake Tahoe Basin receives an estimated 3-5 million visitors who account for roughly $2 Billion in tourism revenue. One might think that visitation would be enough to sustain a vibrant local community.” The article continues “Away from tourist areas and off the highway, the locals’ Tahoe is one struggling with underpaying employment opportunities, challenging housing conditions, blighted residences, and aging infrastructure with the blinders of selfish desire firmly in place.”

It seems as if those in leadership roles only envision the Tahoe Basin as a playground, and that increased tourism will solve the ills brought on by their vision. In an attempt to keep up with the times, The Lake Tahoe Visitors Authority changes its marketing campaigns. Once “Get Your Vacation On,” the emphasis changed in 2018 with a new campaign “Tahoe South” focused on the new, sought-after tourist, those who are “young at heart, adventurous, social with a hint of edginess, and a quirky vibe.”

Readers can weigh in on the success of this, but my perspective is that we got much more than
we were asking for. In a rather pseudo-Thoreauvian statement, an LTVA spokesperson would
try to frame this campaign and those it brought more positively: “Experience every moment to
the fullest and never live with regret. You never know what life is going to throw at you at any
given time (Stuart Moss, LTVA, 2018).” Just make sure that these marketing efforts throw hordes of visitors our way.

According to “The Guardian” (2/12/2023), “Every year about 15 million people visit Lake Tahoe.” So, while we can’t predict the possibility of fires, smoke, or lightning strikes there will be tourists, about “270 for each of the approximately 56,000 basin residents (The Guardian).” Apparently, these numbers aren’t enough for our marketing experts as the newest effort promises “Visit Lake Tahoe ‘Awe and Then Some,'” whose campaign video shills out an idyllic portrait of what Tahoe has to offer but ignores the realities of associated by-products.

“But the swarm that will soon be descending upon us brings so much more than dollars: traffic, noise, pollution, and in some cases violence and destruction.” No, this is not me ranting! This is from an article published by Julia Buckley on April 27, 2023, ( regarding the effects of over tourism in a resort town in Italy.

This popular Italian region is imposing restrictions on tourists and shows that Tahoe is not alone in navigating between a natural and an imposed identity. “As Europe sells out and hordes of tourists descend upon Italy for what looks like a busy summer season, one region has capped visitor numbers in a bid to prevent over tourism… Bolzano… has introduced a limit on overnight visitors… and [by] imposing a ban on any new accommodation openings – unless another has closed. ‘We reached the limit of our resources, we had problems with traffic, and residents have difficulty finding places to live,’ said Arnold Schuler, who is responsible for tourism in the province, adding that they want to ‘guarantee the quality [of life] for locals and tourists, which has been growing harder over the past decade.’

There are also curbs on what he calls ‘hit-and-run’ day trippers, as well as addressing the 400%
increase in Airbnb’s in the past five years. ‘We always said we want to be a region for tourists,
but also a place where the local people live well,”’ Schuler said. The leadership in Bolzano is
doing something to address their crisis. Actions speak louder than words!

And, back in Tahoe, Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos is calling for action. She wrote “Tahoe needs to
be saved from the watchdog agency created to protect it (Nevada Independent, 4/21/2023).”

“In the 1950s, developers and county officials eager to exploit Tahoe’s scenery for revenue, casino
tourism, and tax windfalls [further] harmed the lake’s shoreline and basin. Greed (underline mine), first called out in a 1964 California Law Review article remains an intractable force. Tahoe Regional Planning Agency was created in 1969 through a Congressional joint resolution to protect the Tahoe Basin through science-based management and land use policies and practices. A new report earlier this month from the Tahoe Environmental Research Center extolled lake clarity, but the most dangerous and invasive threat today remains real estate investors, developers, and government officials hungry to exploit the lake’s environment.

TRPA, which began with a priority on resource conservation, has succumbed to the greed prophesied in 1964 (Tsigdinos).” One must only look around at the developments in current or planned construction. Many of the same issues that forced Bolzano, Italy, into action are present today in the basin: proliferation of short-term rentals, housing shortages for locals, and it, too, is being “loved to death! Tahoe beat out the most visited (pre-pandemic) national park (the 522,419-acre Great Smoky National Park) by 2.5 times with nearly 25 million people. That number has skyrocketed to as many as 60 million trips, according to data from the Nevada and California departments of Transportation… The Tahoe Basin is 207,000 acres (Tsigdino).”

Do we really need to keep marketing for more? Back to Walden Pond and Thoreau. I believe the pond has survived the numerous attempts to exploit it for two reasons. The first is the legacy of Thoreau himself. He makes this pond famous because it is associated with his revolutionary thinking and brilliance.

While it continues to draw huge numbers of visitors that has led to potentially devastating consequences (closure due to urine content from swimmers, unsafe inedible fish, erosion from hikers, etc…), millions rallied to preserve this fount of inspiration and transcendence and make it available for all to experience.

Thoreau’s legacy still endures and still inspires millions to loftier goals and pursuits: “Shall we always study to obtain more of these things and not sometimes be content with less? (Walden)” And second, Walden Pond never was as viable of a goldmine for investors and developers as Tahoe is. And while the pond is still heavily visited, its exploitation by developers and investors has radically diminished. But that is not the current case for the Tahoe Basin.

In fact, the lethal combination of exploitation and a legacy of greed identified over half a century ago (1964) might be too much for even the spirit of Da ow to overcome. When the snows melted in spring, the Washoe gathered at Lake Tahoe’s edge [Da ow aga] where they blessed the water and
themselves, a tradition that continues today. Tahoe is a spiritual place for those of us who call it
home. And while the battle for the soul of Walden Pond may be over, for Tahoe it isn’t. American Dream TV recently announced the release of the newest show in Lake Tahoe, a 30- minute, commercial-free show, ‘Selling Lake Tahoe,’ so while the battle for the Tahoe Basin continues, I hope the decision makers can hear Thoreau saying “Enough.”

Kurt Green is a 37 year Tahoe resident, retired English faculty and Dean of Instruction at Lake Tahoe Community College.

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