Tahoe Basin: A Forest’s Past and Future 

Black-and-white photo of open land with fencing, man on log, trees and Lake Tahoe in background.

Historical view of Lake Tahoe from the Logan House in 1866. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress: LC-USZ62-27386)

Andrew Avitt
Pacific Southwest Region
August 7, 2023

Editor’s Note: The Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The land and the people who have experienced it have many stories to tell. Those stories are important to understanding where our relationship with the land has been and where it is headed. 

When trying to understand the current state of our environment, it’s important to start with those first inhabitants — indigenous people who cared for the land and continue to care for the land today.   

In the Lake Tahoe Basin, long before lines were drawn across the American West, people lived there and took care of the land. The Washoe Tribe came and went with the seasons. In the summer, they fished the clear waters of Lake Tahoe. They hunted and gathered piñon pine nuts, harvesting a sustainable bounty from the land. 

It is an existence that has lasted since time immemorial and continues with a meaningful presence by the Washoe Tribe on the land today. 

Then, in the 1840s, the first settlers discovered the pristine lake — later they would discover gold and silver. Black-and-white photo with man in Forest Service uniform cooking with tent and horses in background.

Cooking a meal. Not anyone could be a ranger in those days. You needed skills like being able to cook. This helped determine if a candidate was capable of taking care of themselves in the forest. (Photo courtesy of Don Lane)

The Comstock era ensued, which saw an explosion of migration to the area. They came not with a perspective of harmony and balance with the land but what the land could give.  

“Many believed Tahoe’s resources were there mostly to be enjoyed and exploited, not preserved or conserved. It was just a resource to be taken … the water, the land, the fish, the timber,” said Don Lane, the Desolation Wilderness Manager, with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. It’s estimated that during a 25-year period about two-thirds of the forests in the area were logged. 

Lane who has now worked at the USDA Forest Service for 53 years is also an enthusiast of the basin’s history. Hosting a long-running local radio show called Tales of Tahoe, he said that there’s a lot of complex history to cover, with many ups and downs. 

Though not everyone wanted to use the land according to manifest destiny during that time, said Lane. “The Sierra Club, Stanford, UC Berkeley, and other groups saw what was happening in the Lake Tahoe Basin and began putting pressure on then President William McKinley to preserve the land.” 

On April 13, 1899, President McKinley did just that, setting aside 136,335 acres to be protected in what was known as the Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve. In 1905, those lands were transferred to a newly minted agency, the U.S. Forest Service, and would be managed by three national forests — the Tahoe, Eldorado, and what is now the Humboldt-Toiyabe. Black-and-white image of small cabin with 1920s vehicles up front.

Taken in 1920, photo of the Meyers Ranger Station shows first U.S. Forest Service structure that housed Raymond Tyler and several other field rangers. (USDA Forest Service photo)

The Forest Service Comes to the Basin 

After the Forest Service inherited the Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve, it took a few years before establishing a post in the area. When the first rangers did arrive, they weren’t received with the warmest welcome. 

“There was a lot of resentment from people who suddenly were being told by this government agency, that ‘Hey, you’re on national forest lands you can’t just graze and cut trees down and build fires and then walk away,’” said Lane. 

Though mass logging, mining and homesteading declined during this period, new challenges would soon arise. The proliferation of the gaming industry in the ’50s increased development, along with urbanization, air pollution, and decreased water quality, all came as Lake Tahoe gained popularity. 

These new challenges were further complicated by local politics making it increasingly difficult for the co-management of the Lake Tahoe Basin to be effective. Man with long saw cutting into tree stump.

Circa 1980, Don Lane worked several weeks with others to remove dead standing trees. These trees would be drug across Meeks Creek, to create a crossing for wilderness hikers. (USDA Forest Service photo) 

“It wasn’t the most efficient,” said Lane. “Policies between the three national forests conflicted and inconsistent piecemeal management eventually made it apparent that a unified approach was needed, to efficiently manage the basin’s resources.” 

On April 1, 1973, those lands were consolidated into the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, coordinating with other resource agencies to effectively preserve the basin. 

“The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit, just like the Forest Service, was created in the same spirit, to protect the land for future generations,” said Lane.  

And for more than 50 years, Lane has done just that. He has worked as a wilderness ranger, living in the backcountry with just a backpack and a shovel. He’s taken care of campgrounds. He’s served as a fire patrolman, maintenance worker, forester and today a recreation manager for Lake Tahoe Basin. 

If there is anyone to ask how the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has done over the last 50 years, it’s Lane. Image of crystal blue lake with trees and snowcapped mountains in back.

Lake Tahoe’s east shore. (Photo courtesy of Tahoe Regional Planning Agency)

So, How Has the Forest Service Done? 

“If you look at what Tahoe has experienced, the enormous degradation and the impact of destructive things that had taken place here. And yet, if you look at it today, it is a natural beautiful landscape. That reflects the passion, the dedication, not only of the Forest Service but also other organizations such as federal, state and local governments, private sector and philanthropy, as well as the Washoe Tribe. These organizations collectively are dedicated and focused on preserving the character and the quality of the landscape here. And as populations continue to grow and evolve, places like Tahoe become even more important to protect.” 

Tahoe is still a popular destination. Over 10 million visitors a year pour into Lake Tahoe Basin to get away, to escape the urban world. These places can sometimes “become threatened just because of their uniqueness and their enormous popularity,” said Lane. 

Some of the great work that has been done, and is continuing, includes recovering listed species and preventing the extinction of other species, restoring watersheds, improving forest health, providing high quality recreation with the help of volunteers and partners, and moving towards healthier fire-adapted ecosystems. 

The Future of the Basin 

“We can look at the history of what happened here in Tahoe, how once the landscape was stripped bare. But what we don’t know is what the future will hold,” said Lane.  

That degradation in the 1950s described by Lane is hardly apparent today. In fact, the forests are thick, which presents its own problems. Image of blue lake with shadows of trees along lake line.

Lake Tahoe’s west shore. (USDA Forest Service photo)

Rita Mustatia is a silviculturist with the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Her realm of expertise is all things trees— she collects information and conducts analysis on tree stands to determine overall forest health. 

“The trees came back over time and now many of the basin’s forest are overstocked,” said Mustatia. “When there are too many trees in a given area, environmental factors such as, wildfire, drought and disease become bigger risk factors.” 

Tree health and forest health really come down to competition for resources, nutrients, sunshine and water. If any of the three are lacking, trees become unhealthy and the forest will become susceptible to these threats. 

“A changing climate means drier, hotter conditions, and it’s going to make it even more difficult for trees to be able to survive. That just in turn makes them more susceptible to insects and disease, which also increases wildfire risk,” said Mustatia. 

The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit along with partners are assessing these areas. To treat and manage the land, to reduce those risks, and to bring the environment and the tree stands back to their historical, more natural open condition of fewer, larger trees. 

“We’ve tried to preserve the character of the basin, and we’ve been able to stand back over the decades and watch the trees grow back. And watch the people come and look out over the waters at the mountains and to see the glow in their face,” said Lane. “Although the challenges we face may change, that’s why we exist as a federal agency — to help support this landscape that is so precious and so fragile.”