Trash in Tahoe: Land managers say ‘shared stewardship’ is key to solving basin’s litter issues |

Trash in Tahoe: Land managers say ‘shared stewardship’ is key to solving basin’s litter issues

Claire McArthur
Tahoe Daily Tribune

Despite a successful day of climbing Eagle Lake Buttress on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore, Blue Granite Climbing Gym owner Gianna Leavers left the popular lake in Desolation Wilderness feeling frustrated and sad with visions of garbage bags near shorelines and diapers tucked under tree roots.

“As soon as we got up to the lake there was garbage everywhere,” said Leavers. “It was really disappointing and overshadowed the rest of the day.”

The issue of improper garbage disposal is not new in the Tahoe Basin, but since reopening during COVID-19, the problem has been exacerbated as tourism numbers rival non-pandemic summers and the largest land manager, the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, struggles to keep up with the demand with a smaller staff due to the virus.

“Luckily, the Tahoe Climbing Coalition formed a Tahoe Blue Crew and adopted the Eagle Lake Trailhead as their area to take care of,” added Leavers. “The coalition did their first cleanup there last summer and picked up almost 300 pounds of trash and most of it was in the parking lot or within a quarter-mile radius of the parking lot. It’s even worse this year.”

The Tahoe Blue Crew program is the latest initiative by The League to Save Lake Tahoe to address litter on what should be pristine beaches and trails by recruiting smaller groups of volunteers to host their own cleanups. It has helped to make up for the reduction in large group cleanups, due to the virus, normally hosted by the nonprofit.

“We were working on forming this Tahoe Blue Crew program last year because of the amount of people coming to Tahoe and the need [for cleanups] being so dispersed around the lake, and it ended up being a perfect fit for the situation we’re in now,” explained Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer at The League. “It’s just been really, really neat to see shared stewardship not just be a concept anymore. The Blue Crews really embody that.”

Training for volunteers is held online, and there are currently 50 active Tahoe Blue Crews picking up trash and sending data back to the organization to help identify hotspots and better understand the type of trash being left behind. There have been 200 cleanups by the crews to date.

The fact that 17 of these crews are from people residing outside of the basin is an important point, added Patterson, who sees this as a step in empowering locals and visitors alike to become environmental advocates in a tangible way.

The Citizen Science Tahoe app is another platform that people can use to do their part in protecting Tahoe’s sensitive environment. Created through a partnership between The League, U.C. Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center and the Desert Research Institute, the app allows people to submit reports on a number of indicators of the lake’s health, including algae, invasive species, litter, sediment runoff and more.


In addition to a COVID-related decrease in staffing in the U.S. Forest Service, an influx of new-to-Tahoe tourists might be in part to blame for the spike in improper trash disposal.

Though there is no formal data to back it up, anecdotal accounts from some residents and local agencies point to a large number of first-time tourists visiting Tahoe, presumably due to the uncertainty of plane travel and closures of other activities in more populated areas within driving distance of the lake.

“I would say, though I don’t have proof of this, that we’re getting people in Tahoe that are new to Tahoe and new to nature, if you will,” agreed Patterson. “People, who are used to doing things in cities and going to sporting events and music festivals and all of the things we can’t do now, are coming here because we’re the only show in town. It takes some time to teach that ‘take care of nature’ ethic. It’s good to see these Blue Crews visibly out there doing the work and leading by example.”

It’s an observation that South Lake Tahoe resident Kari Koutnik has noticed, too, as her formally uninhabited shoreline hangouts, not actual public beaches, have become overcrowded and littered with garbage.

“It’s a totally different group of people who otherwise might not choose to recreate in an environment such as Tahoe,” said Koutnik, who has organized local cleanups on Facebook. “In a city, there is a trash can every 5 feet. These are not people coming from suburban areas. These are inner city people. They come from a place where there is trash everywhere. They are accustomed to seeing litter like this.”

On a recent shoreline cleanup, Koutnik explained to a woman why she couldn’t leave her bag of trash behind.

“She said, ‘Well, there’s not a garbage can down here, and I don’t want to carry it,’” recalled Koutnik. “I explained to her that this is native natural shoreline, and she seemed to understand after educating her.”

Education is key to solving the litter problem, a point backed up by scientific research on the psychology behind littering and the factors needed to change the behavior.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, professor emeritus of psychology and marketing at Arizona State University and an expert in the principles of persuasion, has conducted numerous studies on litter, observing what factors impact a person’s decision to litter.

Cialdini research demonstrates that people’s behavior is largely dictated by those around them. If someone comes upon a space where there is very little litter, they are less likely to litter than if they come across one that is extremely dirty. The decision to litter is based on societal cues.

In a study conducted in a parking garage using paper flyers tucked in car windshields, Cialdini found that the most effective method of preventing littering was a subject observing another individual picking up a discarded flyer and looking disapproving. If the subjects didn’t see anyone picking up a flyer, 33% tossed their flyers on the ground.


A group of motivated Incline Village students from the SOS Outreach, a national youth development organization, have also made strides in using research to impact the trash issue on their North Shore community.

“Down by the middle school is where we saw most of the trash. There weren’t any trash cans that were noticeable, and between Chevron and the church there are no trash cans,” noted 13-year-old SOS member Julie Robles. “After people finished their chips, they would just fold up the bag and leave it on the ground. We thought we could fix this.”

After coming across a study conducted by Walt Disney and his team to find the maximum distance people would carry trash before dropping it, the entertainment mogul discovered that trash cans every 30 feet would do the trick. Using this metric, the students picked ideal locations for the new garbage cans close to littering hotspots in Incline Village.

Robles and her fellow SOS members presented their findings to the Incline Village General Improvement District Board of Trustees, and funding was made available to install new bear-proof boxes in the recommended locations.

“Their concerns struck a chord with me personally,” said Sara Schmitz, IVGID Board of Trustees treasurer. “The trash issue is deplorable. People will go watch the sunset at our beautiful beach, get up and leave all their trash behind. They must think the ‘Trash Fairy’ will come and pick it up.”


It’s stories like the innovative Incline Village youth with SOS Outreach that U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit public services staff officer Daniel Cressy feel needs more attention.

“It’s really easy for us to see the immediate impacts and want to share and comment on how bad things are, but I think to be really successful we need to inspire people to do better and tell stories about folks that are volunteering to pick up garbage and inspire people to be better stewards of their land,” noted Cressy.

Though the USFS has added extra dumpsters and trash removal days to high-impact areas like Chimney Beach and Secret Harbor on the East Shore, he says the amount of trash filling the receptacles has managed to keep up pace. And with employee safety as the top priority, there are fewer rangers patrolling and interacting with the public — a short term loss for long term safety, he says.

Luckily, organizations like nonprofit Clean Tahoe Program, as well as numerous unnamed individuals out enjoying the basin, have also stepped up to help the USFS pick up litter and haul away trash.

“A longer term more systematic approach is really trying to change visitor behavior to help folks understand the expectations of bringing less garbage and taking it all with you as being how to responsibly enjoy public land,” explained Cressy. “There is an educational component of helping folks understand why they shouldn’t leave garbage.”

And with only three USFS law enforcement officers available throughout the basin to issue citations for littering — if they even see it happening — Cressy feels that positive messaging and education tactic is more effective than shaming and punishment.

Through increased signage around the basin, social media campaigns, and continued education of visitors through multi-organizational efforts, Cressy hopes that the longstanding trash issue that COVID-19 has forced to a head will ultimately improve.

“The agencies around Tahoe have always worked well together, but it seems like in a time of crisis, we are being more effective and identifying opportunities for more collaboration,” added Cressy. “The bigger strategy is to empower and inspire people to care about their public lands and really realize what an amazing asset and resource Lake Tahoe is.”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a series on the trash issue in the Tahoe Basin during COVID-19. Part one was published in the Aug. 14 – 20 edition of the Tribune and can also be found online at

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