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Saving Lake Tahoe

Michael Makley

Publication Year: 2014

From the author of A Short History of Lake Tahoe and Cave Rock: Climbers, Courts, and a Washoe Indian Sacred Place, a detailed environmental and political history of the Tahoe Basin, with particular focus on the post-World War II era to the present.

Published by: University of Nevada Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

In the weeks before delivery of this manuscript for publication, stories about Lake Tahoe headlined Internet sites, television news, and the pages of the New York Times: “Conservationists File Suit over Lake Tahoe Compact,” “Giant Goldfish Found in Tahoe,” “Nevada Governor Favors Abandoning Tahoe Pact,” “Lake Tahoe’s Clarity Best in Ten Years.”
Because of Lake Tahoe’s awe-inspiring...

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pp. 1-4

Influential Americans from Mark Twain in the nineteenth century to Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton in the twentieth have acclaimed Lake Tahoe a national treasure. Executive orders, congressional bills, and Supreme Court decisions have dealt with the lake. Poets and artists have sought to capture its essence, and twice we nearly destroyed it.
In the nineteenth century, when...

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1. Clear-Cutting the Grandeur

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pp. 5-13

Lake Tahoe’s spectacular setting is a visual record of its geologic history. The lake basin was formed millions of years ago from faulting that caused it to drop between its western and eastern crests. Uplifting action and volcanic eruptions followed, and, within the past 2 million years, glaciation and additional volcanic action further altered its appearance. Great ice blocks and lava...

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2. Trades

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pp. 14-23

In another case of ecodestruction in the era, Lake Tahoe’s large native trout, the Lahontan cutthroat, met a fate similar to that of the forests. That Americans drove them to extinction was only partly owing to the era’s value system. Conflicting jurisdictional decisions and, when regulations were passed, lack of funding for enforcement were more critical elements in causing the native’s...

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3. Using the Lake

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pp. 24-34

In the “Age of Enterprise,” the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with shifts in technologies and economic markets, giant corporate organizations rose, concentrating wealth and power. Practical engineers created cross-country railroads and telegraphs, streetcars, and roadways and supplied electricity to modernize the country. As with its forests and fish, at...

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4. The Boom

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pp. 35-46

The fact that in the nineteenth century Americans ignored Lake Tahoe’s grandeur as they destroyed its mature ecosystem emphasizes the changing values that led to similar results seventy-five years later. In the twentieth century, boosters promoting its reestablished beauty brought Tahoe worldwide acclaim. But the sheer numbers of those visiting, and the infrastructure needed...

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5. Opposing Goals

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pp. 47-56

On November 30, 1965, at a Sacramento ceremony, the state officially recognized California’s newest city, South Lake Tahoe. Reporters clustered around Mayor Brad Murphy and the new city council members. “What are you going to do to stop polluting the lake?” asked a San Francisco Chronicle newsman.
“We’ve already done it,” answered the mayor. “We have built...

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6. Impossible Conditions

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pp. 57-66

In March 1970, with congressional ratification of the bistate compact and President Richard Nixon’s signature on the bill, the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency experiment convened. The agency’s mandate was to protect the lake. Never before had the federal government authorized two states to join in such a legal relationship to administer a shared area. The agency’s formation...

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7. Changing Direction

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pp. 67-72

“Absurd.” “Unacceptably utopian.” “A cruel hoax.” The public attacked the Smith plan at public meetings held to discuss it. South Tahoe’s city attorney recommended “a strong position against this plan.” Former public utilities founder Mayor Les Nagy disparaged the entire TRPA, calling them “a bunch of carpetbaggers.” The council ordered a resolution drawn that would oppose...

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8. Approving Development

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pp. 73-83

Once the governing board began acting in accordance with the compact, the new law’s weaknesses became apparent. While restraining a few projects, the rules ensured passage of others, even those certain to create ongoing damage to the environment. In the early 1970s, the federal government’s involvement would escalate dramatically, as US senators, the Nixon...

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9. Influences

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pp. 84-94

Losing critical day-to-day battles, environmentalists looked for new ways to obviate the TRPA Compact’s deficient language. Assemblyman Z’berg had held hearings at Tahoe in 1972 to find ways the government could acquire and protect private lands designated too fragile for building, and in the summer of 1973 he introduced a bill proposing to reconstitute...

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10. War Between the States

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pp. 95-104

The importance of gambling to Nevada cannot be gainsaid. Its interests dominated the 1970s TRPA. The weak bistate partnership allowed the state to maintain control over gaming decisions. Still, Nevada’s perception of the Tahoe casino issue was evolving, with owners at the lake seeing the benefits of reducing competition by curbing new...

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11. Sagebrush and a Submarine

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pp. 105-114

On June 4, 1979, Nevada governor Robert List signed a bill declaring state sovereignty over almost fifty million acres of federal land. Years of ranchers’ and mining companies’ complaints over Bureau of Land Management (BLM) red tape and environmental restrictions came to a head with the federal government’s 1976 Congressional Organic Act. The act declared that...

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12. New Ministrations, Old Frustrations

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pp. 115-125

In the early 1980s, President Reagan, four governors—two each from California and Nevada—and the federal courts all involved themselves in efforts to affect TRPA’s course. Reagan’s actions were the result of his antipathy toward regulations and his position that the cost of protecting the environment must be reduced.
Senator Laxalt’s office first released the news that the new...

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13. Elusive Agreements

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pp. 126-133

Bill Morgan stepped into a situation later characterized by analysts evaluating the agency as a “war zone.” The unique government entity was failing because of the battles. At a large TRPA public meeting in April 1985, having begun his tenure as executive director only days before, Morgan’s job was to present a draft of a proposed settlement to relieve the Tahoe building...

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14. Litigating the Issues

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pp. 134-143

As the public evaluates the appropriateness of mandates and the efficacy of decisions, experiments in governance are bound to encounter opposition. Because TRPA was restricting private use of valuable lands, personal involvement was unusually intense.
Three main Tahoe property court challenges confronted TRPA in the last part of the twentieth...

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15. Damages and Courts

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pp. 144-154

Three other significant Tahoe court cases were argued in the latter part of the twentieth century. They did not involve TRPA or constitutional issues. The first two related cases, Hewlett v. Cushing and People of the State of California v. Squaw Valley Ski Corporation, had ecological importance in the basin. The other case concerned Cave...

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16. The Summit

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pp. 155-164

The opposing Tahoe political groups’ differences regarding the natural and man-made environments caused their associations to be confrontational. TRPA director Bill Morgan had broken through the mistrust between the groups at a time when the sides were tired of fighting in the courts. He had convinced them to come together to forge agreements once differences were...

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17. Conflicting Hopes

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pp. 165-176

Charles Goldman’s limnological studies in the 1960s led directly to the formation of TRPA. Since then, the agency’s utilization of science has been critical in protecting the lake. But as experiments produced additional data in the twenty-first century, TRPA changed its emphasis in attempting to solve the water-clarity problem. Research regarding clarity emphasized the effects of...

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18. Green Versus Green

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pp. 177-186

In its early years, TRPA was designed to be weak and ineffective. Environmental groups and the courts needed to take action to slow the lake’s degradation. Its compact amended, TRPA became an awkward tool, slow to issue approvals and at times inefficient and petty. Not only did the agency deny building rights on sensitive lands, but it also came to restrict owners’ prerogatives...

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pp. 187-190

On a recent trip, following the scenic seventy-two-mile highway around Lake Tahoe, I visited South Shore’s Tallac Estates and West Shore’s Ed Z’berg Sugar Pine Point State Park. Each harbored majestic old-growth pines. These stands contrast vividly with Tahoe’s preponderant second-growth forests, calling to mind the nineteenth-century trade-off of ecodestruction for...


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pp. 191-212


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pp. 213-220


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pp. 221-240

E-ISBN-13: 9780874179354
Print-ISBN-13: 9780874179347

Page Count: 264
Illustrations: 23 photos, 1 map
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Tahoe, Lake (Calif. and Nev.) -- History.
  • Tahoe, Lake, Region (Calif. and Nev.) -- Politics and government.
  • Tahoe, Lake, Region (Calif. and Nev.) -- History.
  • Tahoe, Lake (Calif. and Nev.) -- Environmental conditions.
  • Natural history -- Tahoe, Lake (Calif. and Nev.).
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