TRUCKEE — Protesters lined roadsides around Lake Tahoe and Truckee to call on those in bumper-to-bumper traffic to cease and desist littering — and visiting — over the weekend, holding signs to deliver their messages:
“Tourists Go Away: Over Tourism Destroying Tahoe.”
“Our kids can’t go back to school because you can’t stay home.”
And “Stop Littering.”
Placer County Supervisor Cindy Gustafson said concerns about tourism are nothing new, but given 2020’s merciless tenor, tolerance is at an all-time low.
“People didn’t seem to want it, and that’s been a sentiment in the community for a long time,” Gustafson said. “I think this year a lot of factors have come together to exacerbate that, certainly COVID and restrictions have created even greater division in our community — politically and as it relates to tourism.”
Gustafson affirmed the uptick in tourists, and their perceived negligence by some of North Lake Tahoe’s permanent residents, are not responsible for school or restaurant closures.
“Our case load in eastern Placer County area of COVID is relatively stable, and has remained relatively stable throughout the summer months,” Gustafson said. “The concerns about schools and restaurants have been statewide, countywide.”
Counter to the perceived risk, Placer County came off the monitoring list Tuesday, Gustafson said, giving schools the option to reopen their physical locations in two weeks if they so choose.
Gustafson said the abuse of public lands via litter is hardly isolated to the Tahoe experience — “It’s what started the Adopt-a-Highway program” — but affirmed that the volume of waste has increased and, with it, the public’s concern.
Gustafson shares that concern. Placer County’s District 5 supervisor said when she finds waste left adjacent to appropriate receptacles rather than inside of them, she is perplexed. Even then, Gustafson said she tries to take on a sympathetic mindset.
“I try to wonder what they were thinking,” Gustafson said. “Were they thinking they were littering, or that someone was coming to pick it up soon? They didn’t leave it on a picnic table and many of the images that have been sent to me have been garbage left near cans.”
That specific kind of garbage is why the town of Truckee invested in solar-powered trash compactors, said Deverie Acuff, support services manager and public information officer for the Truckee Police Department.
“Those are a huge help because they can hold more and, because it sits directly on concrete, no trash can escape underneath,” Acuff said.
Acuff said the town pays for the maximum amount of commercial pickup that is offered by Tahoe Truckee Sierra Disposal — five days a week. Placer County has also temporarily increased trash service in North Lake Tahoe. The increase in service started Aug. 7, adding three additional trash bins in Kings Beach and additional trash pickup service in Tahoe City.
Gustafson theorized that the increase in local waste is not just coming from visitors. Some locals may not realize how and when trash is picked up.
Further, given COVID-19 restrictions, takeout has increased across the city, as well as the disposal of single-use containers and personal protective equipment, Gustafson said.
“Restaurants don’t have the capacity and a lot of people are taking food to-go,” Gustafson said.
She said businesses might consider using compostable containers, but appreciates the financial burden that may place on businesses already struggling to stay afloat.
“These poor businesses have been opened and closed and reopened,” Gustafson said. “But I think we’d be interested in encouraging compostable containers. We’re all trying to be more environmentally aware.”
Gustafson hopes coordinated clean-up efforts — volunteer and government-funded — might also help her constituents focus more on educating visitors rather than condemning them.
“We all need compassion for our mental and physical health,” Gustafson said.
Further, Gustafson said permanent residents may rest assured that the revenues received from tourism far surpass the additional cost of trash pickup.
“Forty percent of the Transient Occupancy Tax goes into the county’s overall administration costs,” Gustafson said. “That’s upwards of $10-$12 million.”
Acuff, Truckee police’s public information officer, said her department and Truckee at large is coordinating community outreach to target trashed hot spots and optimize efforts to clean up and educate.
“We’re trying to narrow down our focus with community outreach to connect with community members who may see something that we’re not seeing, like a specific trail that has more garbage,” Acuff said.
Acuff said Truckee is working to create more robust waste removal and litter prevention programs. Public Works staff do patrols regularly, and rotate cleanup focal points — including various roundabouts throughout the area, as well as the main Legacy Trail that goes from Glenshire into town.
Those efforts, Acuff said, extend to identifying land that does not belong to Truckee, and offering maintenance assistance.
“We hope to identify plots of land that aren’t ours and help take care of them,” Acuff said.
According to Gustafson, providing a cultural education that promotes a deeper understanding of humans’ roles as stewards of the outdoors is an essential component of addressing pollution in Tahoe.
“I think those of us that choose to live in Lake Tahoe and the Truckee region make a very conscious choice to live in a community where we care very much about our environment and our recreation,” Gustafson said. “This is not an easy place to live. You don’t make the most money but you do make a lifestyle choice.”
Gustafson said a compassionate approach may help day-trippers or over-nighters to understand how precious Tahoe’s granite, pines, rivers and ponds are.
“Not everyone has the same background or understanding of their environment, or the culture around here,” Gustafson said. “Not everyone has had the same opportunities or education.”
Chants of “pack it in, pack it out” rang through the air last Friday evening at Kings Beach as several locals gathered at a roundabout to protest the influx of trash being seen in the area.
The gathering in Kings Beach was one of several planned protests that occurred last weekend around Lake Tahoe and Truckee.
“It’s the most trash I’ve ever seen,” said Jessica Robinson. “I grew up here, and it’s out of hand.”
Several in the group echoed Robinson’s sentiment, citing an increase in visitors to the Tahoe Basin due to the outbreak of COVID-19, resulting in more litter being left behind.
“We need to educate. I thought it was common sense not to litter, but it’s not common sense anymore, so we need to teach tourists, as well as be supported by local leaders,” said another Tahoe local, Meg Cooper.
“We need our local government officials to support us and help us and bring in more trash cans and more manpower, and even more regulations. People are on the beach and there’s too much parking allowed. There’s less care than ever and less respect than there’s ever been. This is such a magical, beautiful place and we’re working hard to keep it that way.”
At Kings Beach, according to California State Parks, nearly 25 dumpsters per week are filled at the day-use only site. California State Parks said it also removes roughly 100,000 pounds of trash per week from Tahoe and Donner parks, which it estimates will cost $250,000 during 2020 to keep up with removal.
The data collected comes from Donner, Tahoe State Recreation Area, Kings Beach State Recreation Area, DL Bliss, Sugar Pine Point and Emerald Bay.
Others at the protest in Kings Beach called for restrictions or bans on short-term rentals to curb the amount of visitors making their way to the basin.
For the basin’s land managers the outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in limited staffing as an influx of people seek to recreate outdoors.
“Trash has always been a challenge, but this year, COVID-19 has added pressure,” said Staff Officer Daniel Cressy, with the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit Public Services.
Cressy added that it’s not just more people visiting local beaches, but existing infrastructure is being overwhelmed. The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit hasn’t been able to hire as many staff members this season due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Forest service crews are also encountering bagged trash left outside of dumpsters, either because the dumpsters are full or because people aren’t comfortable touching them.
Of the items left behind at local beaches, the most common, according to past beach cleanups done by the League to Save Lake Tahoe, are cigarette butts, small plastic pieces, food wrappers, and food waste.
Many annual beach cleanups are conducted by the league’s volunteer group, Tahoe Blue Crew, which scours areas in the basin for litter several times each year. At its yearly Keep Tahoe Red, White and Blue Beach Cleanup on July 5, volunteers removed nearly 500 pounds of litter, including 835 pieces of food waste, 1,245 plastic food wrappers, 3,495 cigarette butts, and 6,515 plastic pieces.
For those looking to help keep the area’s beaches clean, the league will be hosting virtual Tahoe Blue Crew training on Thursday. Currently, the league has trained 61 Blue Crew leaders. More information can be found at www.keeptahoeblue.org.
Rebecca O’Neil is a reporter for The Union. Contact her at [email protected] Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of The Union. Contact him at [email protected] or 530-550-2643.