Tahoe Meadows - A Winter Wonderland in Need of Care
Tahoe Meadows, straddling the Carson Range and the Lake Tahoe Basin, is adjacent to the Mt. Rose Highway between Reno and Lake Tahoe. In summer, Tahoe Meadows is known for its leisurely interpretative nature trail, and its links to the Tahoe Rim Trail, the Ophir Creek Trail, and the Relay Peak Trail. But in winter Tahoe Meadows is becoming a recreation free-for-all. As Tahoe Meadows grows in popularity, parking competition, dangerous traffic situations, and recreation use conflicts are increasing. Is there some way we can work together to develop a system of shared use, safety, and protection of the meadow?
At 8,750 feet in elevation, Tahoe Meadows, even in a drought year, has enough snow to encourage a brief outdoor experience. The historic Truckee Meadows, now disappearing under the expansion of Reno and Sparks, houses a population of over 500,000 and continues to grow. The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN) projects that northern Nevada will have a population of 687,000 by 2023. Highway 431, only 20 minutes away from Tahoe Meadows, was once many miles from the city but is now within Reno’s expanding sphere of influence and easily accessible for a continuous stream of residents and tourists. Use of the meadows is heavily promoted as one of the area’s free and unrestricted “things to do”. The Carson Ranger District and Snowlands Network have tracked winter use of the Tahoe Meadows starting in 2003 and have reported over 50,000 visitors to the area for snow-playing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, winter hiking, and feeding the chickadees each snow season.
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU) of the United States Forest Service is responsible for managing Chickadee Ridge, an extremely popular snowshoe and cross country destination, adjacent to the Tahoe Meadows. LTBMU’s other recreation sites that have more dispersed or low-key use include Desolation Wilderness, several beaches, Taylor Creek salmon spawning site, Mt. Tallac, and Fallen Leaf Lake.
Management of the popular Tahoe Meadows, Chickadee Ridge, and Relay Ridge is made more complicated because these lands, all part of the United States Forest Service (USFS), are managed by different units of the USFS.
Chickadee Ridge lies in the LTBMU, which receives continuous visitors on trails within and around the Lake Tahoe basin. The Forest Service has limited financial resources to convene and design a management system for Chickadee Ridge that entails many, often conflicting, uses. The agency lacks the capacity to manage intensive recreation. While the agency is charged with protecting natural resources, LTBMU does not have the resources to protect meadows, natural resources, and wildlife from the hordes of humans.
Chickadee Ridge is enormously popular with snowshoers and cross-country skiers in winter. As the number of overall users increases, so do the conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreationists. Although snowmobile use is currently allowed at Chickadee Ridge, the area is dominated by pedestrian users who want to escape the noise and air pollution of motors.
In winter, vehicles line both sides of Highway 431 along the Tahoe Meadows. Continuous pedestrian crisscrossing of the highway can be fraught with risk. Providing more parking will eat into the land everyone enjoys and add to the number of recreationists already using the area. Safety along this popular stretch of highway must be addressed to prevent future accidents.
One problem in both winter and summer is the lack of restrooms along the Mt. Rose Corridor and also at the Mt. Rose Summit Trail a mile away. The closure of the restrooms indicates the lack of financial resources for the Forest Service. It also results in pollution of the meadow. Additionally, dog feces litter the popular snowshoe and skiing areas, with no receptacles for dog waste. Ophir Creek, which spills into Washoe Valley, can be affected by sewage.
The USFS has a mission to manage recreation, but not for the intensity currently present along the Mt. Rose highway near the Tahoe Meadows. This area is in dire need of a recreation management plan to improve safety, sanitation, and resource protection. It does not need to be onerous but should identify appropriate rules and regulations to satisfy multiple user interests. Potential management strategies could include creating a county, state, or local park at the Tahoe Meadows, Chickadee Ridge, and Relay Ridge. Management should be undertaken by an agency with appropriate capacity and authority.
However, with government budgets reduced due to the current pandemic, transferring property to a dedicated recreation mission focused agency is also problematic. Washoe County Regional Parks and Open Space, for instance, was downsized and became part of Washoe County’s Community Service Department during the last economic downturn in 2009. While the park user population has increased, the current budget is still well below the 2009 budget. The Nevada State Parks budget is always the first to be cut during an economic downturn and the last to receive budget increases. Neither agency has the resources to take on the task of working with the public to develop a recreation use system for Tahoe Meadows and implement it.
There are no easy solutions for the challenges present along the Mt. Rose Highway at the Tahoe Meadows and adjacent areas, but it’s an issue that needs to be addressed. What is needed is a plan acknowledging the need for safety and protection of the land, the natural resources, and wildlife while recognizing the various public uses. Administration of the area may require several agencies to share the management due to the complex nature that includes a scenic highway, wetlands, intense winter use, the attraction of the chickadees, and of course, that beautiful snow, all just a step off the road.
In the meantime, next time you strap on your snowshoes, put out your handful of birdseed for a chickadee on the ridge, or carry your sled up the hill, think about the future of the meadows you so enjoy.