RENO - The public is nearly unanimous in its belief that maintaining healthy forests and other natural resources at Lake Tahoe is key to the region's future, polling by regional and federal land managers shows.
Surveys, workshops and other efforts to obtain comments from nearly 2,500 people over the past eight months found near unanimity in ranking the most important goals at the lake through 2027, officials for four agencies said Friday.
Keeping the basin's forests healthy, reducing the danger of wildfires, increasing protection of wildlife and native fish habitat and maintaining or improving Lake Tahoe's water quality topped the list.
Other priorities include developing more scenic viewing and vista areas and working to decrease traffic.
The surveys found sightseeing is the No. 1 reason people visit Lake Tahoe. The other main activities are eating at restaurants, visiting casinos for shows or to gamble and hiking or biking on trails.
The public opinion research is part of Pathway 2007, a joint effort by the U.S. Forest Service, Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, California's Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection to gather opinions for planning for the basin over the next two decades.
"We are reaching out in ways we have not done before," said John Singlaub, executive director of the regional planning agency.
Improving forest health was listed as a goal of 91 percent of the people surveyed within the basin, with each of the other top goals pulling 80 percent or more, said William Cromer, president of Washington D.C.-based The Cromer Group, which conducted the research.
"The fact is, they see this all as interrelated," Cromer said.
Kathy Jordan, vice president of ESI, a consulting firm that assisted in the research, said the results suggest an "amazing consensus" among those surveyed, whether they live at the lake or vacation there.
"In the kind of public research we do, we don't frequently see numbers in the 80s and 90s. This is very unusual," she said.
Cromer added, "You probably couldn't get people to answer in those kinds of numbers that Elvis is dead."
Forest Service spokesman Rex Norman said his agency was especially encouraged by the growing recognition of the threat wildfires pose to communities and natural resources and the need to address it through thinning dense stands and controlled burns.
"When I first got here three years or so ago, prescribed fire was like an unmentionable word," Norman said.
"People are saying, 'Maybe this is a forest. Maybe I can put up with a little bit of smoke from some of those prescribed fires,"' he said.
The public has a surprisingly good understanding of how Lake Tahoe's future is interdependent on the health of its forests, fish, wildlife and water quality, the officials said. Visitors and residents alike also recognize the primary threats to the lake and its basin, from traffic congestion and air pollution to catastrophic wildfires and soil erosion.
But the research found people are confused about the multi-jurisdictional management of the lake and its shores.
Still, people are committed to protecting the lake and its resources if the regulations make sense to them, planning agency spokeswoman Julie Regan said.
"They will do whatever it takes to protect the lake if they understand why," Regan said. "It shows we need to do more public education and communicate better."
Regan said some of the findings were expected, like concern about the threat of wildfires and loss of lake clarity.
Researchers were surprised to learn that many people believe litter is a leading cause of loss of clarity and that many place a premium on clear skies, she said.
"The issue of the night sky ... we didn't expect that to be at the level of passion we are seeing. People come to Tahoe because they want to see those stars at night. That is part of their overall experience," she said.
"We really are concerned about what the public thinks and we are incorporating these ideas and concerns into the planning of the future. This isn't an idle exercise."
On the Net:
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency: http://www.trpa.org/
Forest Service Tahoe Basin: http://www.fs.fed.us/r5/ltbmu/