The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1985, Volume 31, Number 1
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Tahoe: An Environmental History. By Douglas H. Strong. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Annotated bibliography. Photographs. Maps and diagrams. Index. 252 Pages. $16.95.

Reviewed by Rick Hydrick, Public Relations Representative, South Tahoe Public Utility District, author of “The Genesis of National Park Management, John Roberts White and Sequoia National Park, 1920-1947”, Journal of Forest History (1984).

Douglas H. Strong’s, Tahoe: An Environmental History, is the sole analysis of the Tahoe basin’s perplexing environmental problems. Probably no other region in the country, outside of national parks and forests, is subject to as strict and ambitious environmental controls, as complex and emotional environmental issues, and as stubborn environmental problems as Lake Tahoe. It is important to provide an objective historical context for the region.

Beginning with the symbiotic Washoe Indians, Strong’s topical and chronological approach is helpful in understanding the cumulative impact of the white man on the Tahoe environment. The damage of the loggers and farmers of the 19th century has largely been outdone by the urbanization of the mid-20th century. Starting with national park proposals and moving through 1983 and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), one missed opportunity to protect Lake Tahoe after another is chronicled until even the efforts of the federal government are shown to be nearly exhausted. Strong’s intentions are thus to describe objectively, “a particularly intractable set of problems,” “enhance our understanding of other areas and their environmental problems” (San Diego could be included here), and to help “achieve control over growth and development” at Lake Tahoe.

Strong does not wholly succeed in achieving this goal because he concentrates on the large events and does not pursue closely enough the perspectives, motives, and technical issues which are also a part of the historical record. To explain the motives of the principals in his history and the resultant political impasse, Strong leans heavily on the helpful, but tired, framework of preservationists vs. property rights advocates. He misses what may be the heart of the matter-the technical issues that are the real foundation of the environmental movement at Tahoe and throughout the nation.

Strong’s own writing harbors technically incorrect or biased information. Discussions on timber quality, 19th century logging versus 20th century urbanization, sources of siltation, atmospheric pollution from upwind cities, aquatic plant infestations, shoreline versus hinterland development, water supply as a population determinant, and the degree of lake pollution are all insufficiently treated. Strong thereby unwittingly obfuscates the environmental struggle at Tahoe.

He does touch on the fact that locals were “alienated” and angered by in-sensitive environmental planning in the 1970’s. But he attributes it almost solely to self-interest and localism. He does not explore the specific reasons for their reactions. Strong does not openly point out that there are more than a dozen environmental agencies in a basin of 512 square miles with their own often complex, sometimes contradictory, sometimes complementary, agendas. For example, he neglects the public reaction to two adversarial 208 water quality plans (one by the TRPA and the other by the State Water Resources Control Board), or owners’ reaction to constant interagency squabbles over environmental impact reports, land coverage formulas, population projections, mitigation measures, the use of sewage treatment plants for growth control in lieu of bonafide environmental planning, the use of environmental thresholds and carrying capacities established on the flimsiest data base, the allocation of building permits by lottery, the maddening processes, requirements, and paperwork for the approval of building permits, and the promotion of onerous funding schemes. Most importantly, Strong does not explain that these agencies combined (and TRPA by itself) comprise the most singular, unique, and ambitious social experiment of which I am aware in United States history. In essence, he decries the deterioration of the environment but does little more than touch on the complicated issues involved in environmental planning and implementation. Should people be expected to accept such discordant experimentation while their property loses value and their cultural heritage is being, in their own eyes, compromised?

This is not to say that there is no environmental problem or that the environmental agencies and even local officials are not exerting almost super-human efforts to resolve the problems. Indeed, Strong has identified tenacity as perhaps the most important characteristic of all the agencies and people associated with Lake Tahoe’s fate. The problem remains one of credibility. Historians have a tendency to take scientists and technocrats at their word. Environmental historians must dig deeper into the evidence, or lack thereof. If Tahoe is “providing warnings and pointing directions,” it is that the issues must be addressed through cooperation and not just rhetoric. Douglas Strong has written a needed history, but a complete monograph on Lake Tahoe would address this issue.