After years of political wrangling, court battles, and bureaucratic wheel-spinning, a significant step has been taken to save Lake Tahoe -- one of the world's natural wonders -- from further environmental degradation.
A bill declaring the Sierra Nevada Tahoe basin a national scenic area was introduced in congress this week by Rep. Vic Fazio (D) of California. Long sought by consevationists, the proposal is sure to be fought by the developvers and advocates of local control. But it represents a clear victory for supporters of the high alpine lake as well as an indication that influential members of Congress and the Carter administration are interested in protecting the lake before it deteriorates further.
The proposal comes just as a new federal interagency report confirms that Lake Tahoe suffers increasingly from private home development and the rapidly expanding gambling industry that attracts millions of visitors a year.
The number of tourists coming to the lake (which straddles the California-Nevada border) has grown by 86 percent since 1970, approaching 250, 000 on summer days. Most are drawn to the dozen casinos that not only have increased in number over the last decade, but nearly doubled their slot machines and other gambling facilities over the same period. Housing, public-works facilities, and other services have mushroomed to meet the demand of casino employees as well.
All of this has "strained to the breaking point" Tahoe's unique and fragile ecology, says the federal task force report. Air pollution frequently violates state and federal standards, wildlife habitats have been destroyed, and the lake's unmatched clarity is being clouded by the algae growth that development and stream sedimentation bring.
The report notes that the government itself has contributed to TAhoe's problems. It blames government agencies for "accommodating, if not stimulating" inordinate growth by supporting new sewer systems, highway improvements, and public reacreation facilities.
It also gives considerable ammunition ammunition to those who maintain that California, Nevada, and the bi-state agency formed a decade ago to manage growth have inadequately protected what many feel is an area rivaling Yosemite and the Grand Canyon in beauty.
The "Lake Tahoe National Scenic area Bill" would require the US Secretary of Agriculture (who oversees the US Forest Service) to formulate a "scenic area plan" within two years. Local governments then would have one year to bring their ordinances and regulations into compliance. In order to prevent further environmental deterioration during this period, there would be a moratorium on any significant new construction.
The legislation also would authorize the federal government to buy up the construction rights of new casinos now planned and would give the Forest Service power to condemn land anywhere in the area if negotiations to purchase from private owners fail.
"We're hopeful we can get President Carter to support it and make it one of his environmental priorities for this election year," says James Bruner, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "I think this will be the case, based on the first feedbacks we're getting from the White House. We're very optimistic."