How to stop Tahoe from becoming the Disneyland of wildfire country

Mark Twain described Lake Tahoe as “a noble sheet of blue water rising six thousand three hundred feet above sea level”.

This beautiful lake and its surrounding Sierra Nevada attract admirers from all over the world. But tourism, unfettered commercial growth in the land of wildfires and environmental neglect are rapidly destroying the very qualities that make it special.

Talk to most Tahoe Basin residents and they’ll tell you that the legions of outsiders in recent years have a lot in common with kudzu, the vine that chokes out almost everything in its path.

Not all visitors are to blame, but when tourists arrive in the tens of thousands, our small mountain communities feel under siege. Overtourism first took root when rapacious real estate investors turned Airbnb operators bent zoning rules for financial gain, turning private homes into short-term rentals. Then come the entrepreneurs, companies and tourism promoters who lobbies elected officials and government agencies turn a blind eye to the harms of unfettered short-term rental growth, lax oversight and inadequate infrastructure.

Destination management organizations such as the Reno Sparks Convention and the Visitors Authority benefit from collecting transient occupancy taxes from vacation rentals in Tahoe. A public records request revealed a scheme by Airbnb to create a “corporate partnership agreement” with the authority and its North Lake Tahoe tourism surrogates. The goal was to flood Tahoe Basin communities with visitors during the height of the 2020-2021 pandemic. Remember that at that time, no vaccine existed. Coronavirus infections and COVID deaths have skyrocketed in the region to such an extent that Northern Nevada’s largest hospital has been forced to create a pandemic triage overflow in the hospital car park.

What was the message to Tahoe residents – from first responders to school teachers to grocery clerks to children and retirees? You are not the priority.

As the Tahoe Basin’s popularity skyrockets, so does the encroachment on wildfire country. Hungry Realtors, rental operators and developers want to turn Tahoe’s majestic natural wonders into a Disneyland-like operation. A new North Lake Tahoe development in Nevada’s Washoe County, for example, has 120 hotel rooms and 80 condominiums and promises to offer 24/7 concierge service, a beach club and a restaurant. place of events. Down the road, another new project of 40 condominiums also hopes to innovate. But in Lake County, California, where comparable fire hazards abound, a judge recently stopped a development project who did not sufficiently foresee what could happen when a forest fire breaks out. Apparently Washoe County officials do not share this concern, although an emergency evacuation is still possible.

The few roads in the Tahoe Basin are already congested. Record snowstorms recently created travel nightmares for residents and transport workers as tourists clogged roads eager to get to accommodation because refunds would not be received. The situation got so bad in South Lake Tahoe that first responders had to support hospital staff to their jobs. Nevada governor declares state of emergency to allow highway patrol turn away non-residents.

Summer was no better. Wildfire evacuations last year led to apocalyptic scenes of residents and tourists struggling to access winding mountain roads engulfed in thick smoke. the fire hazard severity maps around Tahoe remain terrifying.

from lake tahoe clarity has deteriorated Year after year. Once the paths and the virgin meadows littered with garbage and animal droppings. E-bikers and mountain bikers compete with hikers on crowded trails. Eager visitors park haphazardly along the narrow streets and neighborhoods. Local residents of California and Nevada are under siege. As new petition launched by residents of North Lake Tahoe points out that “the number of tourists here is well beyond capacity, largely due to the proliferation of short-term rentals”. Accommodation formerly used by locals working in the service sector is no longer available for long-term rental.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We are not the first place to struggle with tourism. Venice and Florence, Italy, crack down on Airbnb and its brothers. In 2019, the Dutch Tourism and Convention Board stated that it no longer promote the visit but instead focus on managing the visitors it already receives.

Tahoe residents need government agencies and officials in California and Nevada to prioritize the well-being of the Tahoe Basin and those who live there. We need the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency and our local and state officials in both states to adopt a coordinated, comprehensive, and enforceable policy that limits unhoused short-term rentals in residential areas. At present, there is little more than a “mole swoop” system that varies widely from county to county, with residents often drafted in as short-term hire police. Such limits and other incentives would shift units from short-term housing to long-term housing.

The region also needs a transit and reservation system for sites, parking, and cars, much like Zion and Glacier Bay National Parks. Non-resident vehicles can and should be stopped and parked before entering the Tahoe Basin. Resources from the federal infrastructure package could help sustain the effort.

Until development is curbed and the tourism industry prioritizes environmental stewardship and sustainability, the natural splendor that Twain once saw will always be under threat. Redirecting tourism funds to promote ideal visitor behavior prior to arrival can help preserve Tahoe so that future generations can revere and enjoy it responsibly.

Pamela Mahoney Tsigdinos is a writer who lives in North Lake Tahoe.

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