Tahoe locals and visitors: Getting past Us versus Them

Take a look at any issue facing Lake Tahoe communities from lack of affordable housing to parking nightmares, from crowded trailheads to an increase in litter, and you will find angry locals responding to the problem by lambasting out-of-towners suggesting they pack it up and go back to where they came from. 

There is an Us versus Them mentality in Tahoe (and to be fair, just about every tourist town) pitting some of the locals who have lived here for at least a few years against tourists, second homeowners and those who have chosen Tahoe as their home more recently. This attitude was vividly displayed at protests in the roundabouts in Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe in 2020. These events started out oriented towards improving behavior and soon became focused on a drive to send tourists home. 

But some locals are trying to bridge the gap between locals and those new to the area and are working to improve relations through education and a willingness to learn. 

“As a Mom I’m trying to raise kind kids,” says Heidi Hill Drum CEO of the Tahoe Prosperity Center and 25-year resident of South Lake Tahoe. “Kindness is where we need to start whether we moved here last week or 25 years ago. My personal experience is that people feel more empowered to be mean than they used to,” but she believes “you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar,” 

Fannette Island is the only island in Lake Tahoe and lies within Emerald Bay – photo: Bob Tregilus, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Hill Drum says it is unfortunate that in Tahoe “there is no warm and welcoming sense of community, you are an outsider until here long enough. We will always be a tourism economy. If you fight that you won’t win. Tahoe Prosperity Center is working on diversifying the economy but knows that tourism will still be an important part of the economy.” 

The Us versus Them mentality is not a new one. In fact, it is a tribal thing that has been going on since one cave man objected to another cave man coming on his side of the creek. Tribes of people have always had a rivalry against other groups of people. And it has been a part of the Tahoe landscape for decades. In the 60s and 70s tourists were called Turkeys and locals had “Don’t Trust Anyone under 6000 feet” bumper stickers. 

Lake Tahoe basin residents protested over tourism in the basin in August of 2020 – photo: Paula Peterson/South Tahoe Now

Then when the economy tanked in the 1980s Tahoe folks began to understand that those dang pesky tourists were what enabled Tahoe residents to eat. Tahoe is a tourist economy, and while diversifying our economy is a good thing, there will most likely always be a strong tourist base that makes the region tick. For several decades there was an undercurrent of resentment towards those who came to visit, but there was also an understanding of the economic importance of visitors. 

Local businesses and visitor associations promoted the area and worked hard on creating a welcoming atmosphere towards visitors. But then resentment returned more strongly in the last ten years, primarily because of a shortage of affordable housing and a surplus of vacation rentals. Second-home owners and investors were buying up homes and converting them into short term rentals, driving up the average purchase price of housing, while also reducing the inventory of potential long term rentals for local working people.

 When it comes to tourists, education campaigns, and changes in government agencies, policies are being developed or already implemented to deal with the litter and crowding issues. One example is the Take Care Tahoe campaign. Local governments and private businesses are also being asked to create or facilitate housing and regulate short term rentals. Bringing new residents and long term locals together is also a matter of education and understanding of each other’s motivations and actions. 

“I have two new friends that moved here from the Bay Area. They want to start a family here. They are almost afraid to tell people who they work for because it’s Facebook. They are so excited to live in Lake Tahoe. They want to contribute to the non-profits and raise their kids here,” said Hill Drum.  “New residents will help us improve our community, they can go to our nice restaurants, pay our servers, prop up the economy year ‘round. I get the housing crisis, but it’s caused by a failure of regulatory agencies to build enough housing,” said Hill Drum.

Lake Tahoe – photo: Bob Tregilus, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Corey Rich is a world renowned outdoor photographer whose book about his amazing adventures, “Stories Behind the Images” was published in 2019. Rich moved to Tahoe about 15 years ago and now his business employs 15 people full time. “I could not be more excited about the new and part-time residents in South Lake Tahoe,” said Rich. “We have been a diamond in the rough. People caught on, and the word got out, and now we have a real housing crisis. Costs for rent and buying a home have gone up.” 

He sees the need for more workforce housing first hand, as his employees are having trouble finding housing. In one case he provided housing for an employee and realizes he might have to do it again to keep good employees in the area.  

Rich says that new people, however, are “bringing enrichment to the community. They have deep pockets and can put their money where their heart is. If they believe in something good for the community, they can write checks.” 

In August of 2020, several Lake Tahoe residents held a protest to raise awareness about the impacts of over tourism – photo: Paula Peterson/South Tahoe Now

Rich also believes that “When tourists flood into town, Tahoe becomes more diverse. Different beliefs and ethnicity makes our town better.” 

The Covid pandemic made it worse as tons of folks who already had second homes moved here permanently and others decided they wanted to live here and purchased homes previously occupied by long term renters. This buying frenzy drove up real estate prices even more, for both rentals and sales, which were already high for those living on Tahoe wages.  

Part of the problem for locals is they get frustrated with the bad actions of some visitors and new residents and don’t realize that we are dealing with two very different groups of people. One group includes those loud vacation renters and day visitors who support the restaurants and shops, but are the primary contributors to the litter and parking problems that we see during peak times. The other group are new residents, who are connected to the loss of housing and changes to the community, but also can make a positive contribution to the community by revitalizing the business and non-profit sectors. 

 Recently Billy Griffin, who owns the popular New Moon Natural Food Stores in Truckee and Tahoe City, penned a guest column for Moonshine Ink entitled “How not to be an invasive species.” It’s a poignant and light-hearted look at how locals and newcomers can learn to live together more successfully. “Please don’t act in ways you’re used to, while telling others how you think they should behave,” suggested Griffin to new residents. “Please be humble, and allow your own sense of stewardship to develop before you start thinking you know everything.” 

A few other tips Griffin suggests for newcomers include: Don’t be demanding or rude; no one cares how you look; don’t drive with snow on your roof; take time to know your neighbors; support a community organization;  and turn-off your porch light (we like to look at the stars). 

Eagle Falls near Lake Tahoe is a popular attraction – photo: Bob Tregilus, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Stacy Caldwell is the CEO of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation (TTCF).  TTCF is actively involved with providing assistance to local organizations doing good things in the community, and one important way it does that is to provide an avenue for locals and second-home owners to donate funds and know they are going to a good cause. 

“It takes a while to become a part of a community,” Caldwell said. “There are cultural differences, you have to know your neighbors. We are the ones who show up to coach the little league, cook the pancake breakfast. We wear all these different hats.” 

Caldwell says that both locals and newcomers should reach out to each other, what Hill Drum called being more welcoming. She hopes that locals “would be generous with their stories of what it is like to live here. The why we do things the way we do. I think the people who move here want to know that. This is where we should be able to engage.” 

One good place to start in making yourself at home in North Tahoe/Truckee is to visit the TTCF Welcome Wagon site which includes lots of information to help new residents adjust to life in the mountains and become a part of the community. 

“Make this your civic home, ground yourself civically in this place,” Caldwell urged. “We can help connect them to volunteer opportunities. Show your intent to be involved in the region.”

A special thanks to Paula Peterson of South Tahoe Now for the use of protest images seen in this report.

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