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Vacationing with respect: Tahoe agencies ask vistors to become stewards

Tahoe Blue Crews were integral in combating the litter issue in 2020, and the volunteer groups will continue to clean up their adopted areas this summer. Provided
Alex Vale

Ask most Lake Tahoe residents how last summer went, and their answers will likely be the same: It was a mess.

With COVID cases on the rise and anxieties escalating, the small mountain communities surrounding the lake experienced a surge in visitation rivaling non-pandemic years. Coupled with limited staffing from resource agencies, the Jewel of the Sierra saw an exacerbation of issues that have afflicted the area for decades: littering, overcrowding, illegal parking and irresponsible recreation.

“I feel like a broken record after eight years of living here and doing this, but it’s the same stuff,” says Jesse Patterson, chief strategy officer with the League to Save Lake Tahoe. “People leaving litter or other things behind, crowding places that are already crowded, parking and traffic issues related to that which become safety issues when you’re on a highway, near a cliff or on a boat for the first time ever with a bunch of other people on boats for the first time ever.”



Already full dumpsters had garbage stacked around them, attracting bears; trails and trailheads had food wrappers and diapers left to the side; and stretches of highway near popular recreation sites were lined with illegally parked cars, endangering both pedestrians and moving traffic.

With airplane travel uncertain and most indoor activities closed, Tahoe saw an influx of first time visitors driving into the basin who were not necessarily seasoned recreationists.



“I think what we saw last summer in particular with museums and amusement parks closed, people came to the outdoors and really fell in love with it. That’s a great thing,” says Liz Bowling, director of global communications at North Lake Tahoe Resort Association. “We want to embrace that people are exploring outside, but we also really need to amp up our education on how to do it safely, responsibly and respectfully.”

As a result, NLTRA, in conjunction with South Lake Tahoe and Truckee, has launched a travel pledge this summer that they hope visitors will commit to when arriving in the basin.

“Demonstrate mindful travel. Be fire safe. Become a steward of Lake Tahoe,” explains Bowling. “It really talks to visitors about expectations that we have of them while they’re visiting and ways for visitors to understand the culture of Tahoe.”

This concept of “shared stewardship” of the Tahoe Basin, which depends on its tourism-based economy, is the foundation of the League, too.

“Shared stewardship has been the solution for Tahoe, it is the solution for Tahoe, and it’s more than just taking care of your impact,” says Patterson. “If you see some trash or something that’s not right that doesn’t’ have anything to do with you, report it or fix it or take care of it.”

With large group cleanups prohibited during the pandemic, the League’s Tahoe Blue Crew program took off last summer with over 50 small volunteer groups forming to adopt their own stretches of land to clean, a third of which were crews who live outside the basin.

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 free phone 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.

“Locals play just as much of a part in this,” notes Devin Middlebrook, Mayor Pro Tem of the city of South Lake Tahoe. “We are also recreating. We are also going out and driving our cars around the Tahoe Basin. It’s not a visitor’s problem. It’s an ‘everyone’ challenge that we’re all working to solve.”

This past summer, South Lake Tahoe launched an ambassador program at high-traffic locations like Heavenly Village and Lakeview Commons, handing out masks, hand sanitizer and talking to visitors about responsible tourism. The program will continue this summer, and around the lake, Take Care Tahoe has also kicked off a regional ambassador program that will bring more volunteers to beaches and trailheads to educate on packing out what they pack in or remind people to skip plastic water bottles and drink Tahoe tap.

“It’s the responsibility of the Tahoe Basin to be able to educate the visitors and show them how we should be behaving in Tahoe and leading by example,” adds Middlebrook.

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

Recreating in Tahoe doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does come with the responsibility of taking care of this beautiful environment. Here are ways to make sure you’re doing your part to “Keep Tahoe Blue” (and kind).

LEAVE NO TRACE: Whether you’re hiking in Desolation Wilderness or hanging out at the beach, follow the Leave No Trace principles, which, among other tenants, ask that recreationists pack out all trash that they packed in (including dog waste), stay on designated paths and be considerate of other visitors.

BE BEAR WISE: If a trash can or dumpster at the trailhead or beach is full, do not try to cram your garbage in or leave it next to the receptacle. Take the trash with you and find a place to properly dispose of it. Exposed trash will attract bears, and it’s dangerous for the bears to become dependent on these food sources.

HAVE A PLAN B: Lake Tahoe is a popular place — for good reason — so before heading to your preferred beach or trailhead, have a backup plan in mind if the parking lot is already full or the site is overcrowded.

OBEY PARKING SIGNS: It’s disappointing when you arrive at your intended destination and the lot is full, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to get creative with your parking spot. Local authorities have ramped up enforcement for illegal parking, which can put pedestrians and moving traffic in harm’s way.

BE FIRE SAFE: A majority of wildfires are human-caused. Limit campfires to approved fire pits while being aware of the basin’s current fire warning level. Do not flick cigarette butts, which can (and have!) start a forest fire.

DRINK TAHOE TAP: Guess what? Tahoe has some of the best-tasting water in the world. Skip the pre-packaged water bottles and fill your reusable bottle with water straight from the tap. No filtering needed.


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