After 10 years of political wrangling, significant steps have been taken to safeguard one of the world's natural treasures. In its last days of business, the 96th Congress passed legislation to protect Lake Tahoe from the kind of development which already has damaged the area's unique environment. President Carter had urged passage of the bills and is expected to sign them. President-elect Ronald Reagan is said to approved the measures, too.
Straddling the California-Nevada border high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe for years has been overseen by a cumbersome and largely ineffective bistate agency that was heavily influenced by gambling and development interests and approved nearly all construction proposals.
Building of dwellings, resorts, and casinos on Tahoe's shores has resulted in a massive influx of automobiles and intensive use of the lake itself. Air pollution in the area frequently violates state and federal standards. Wildlife habitat has been destroyed, and the overbuilding of private homes and condominiums has caused sedimentation and algae growth, clouding the lake's once incredibly clear waters.
Under the new California-Nevada compact, ratified by Congress last week, the revamped agency now has much strnger powers to control and restrict development.
While this newly formed Tahoe regional planning agency makes its environmental study and determines the area's "carrying capacity" for future development, no new casinos are to be approved or increased home building allowed.
As part of the political trade-off leading to better protection for Lake Tahoe, legislation pushed by a Reagan ally, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, was approved on Capitol Hill Dec. 5. It provides some 9,000 acres of federal land around Las Vegas and Reno to be sold to private interests.
Under the law, Congress, in effect, can authorize this money (an estimated $ 150 million) to buy up environmentally sensitive land in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
For many years, Nevadans have rankled at the "checkerboard" pattern of unused federal land around their urban areas that dates back to 19th-century railroad grants. By giving up some future development rights around Lake Tahoe, they now will be able to develop those patches of land in and around Reno and Las Vegas.
President Carter earlier had expressed approval of this "land swap," warning that even stiffer federal control around Lake Tahoe might result if such a settlement were not reached.
Environmentalists, who have been pushing for national scenic area designation at Lake Tahoe, are not altogether happy with the new bistate agency and land-swap legislation. They had been hoping for a complete moratorium on new construction.
"I think more has to be done," said James Bruner, executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. "But we have made significant progress."