Jill Sanford
Jill Sanford
Project Assistant, Civic Spark AmeriCorps Fellow

Tourism Traffic: Can't Live With It, Can't Thrive Without It

If you listen very closely, you can hear it: the collective sigh that passes through the town of Truckee when the tourists hit I-80 and head home at the end of the weekend. Our roads were just inundated, our grocery stores crowded and picked over, our normal small town vibes overrun by the hustle and bustle of city folk. Monday mornings find local residents basking in our vacationer-free daily routines. Our town itself goes back to normal.

COMM Blog EP Image 2014It’s a funny concept in this town, though, “back to normal”. As nice as it is to live in Truckee without having to dodge tourists left and right, the reality is that it’s normal and absolutely essential to this community that they come here and shake things up every winter.

Prior to this year, the last good snow season in Tahoe was the 2010/2011 season. In the years since, local businesses have been strapped for cash and ski resorts turned brown and muddy from the drought. Images of empty chair lifts and manmade snow blowers haunted our minds and we feared for the tourism-dependent economy that fuels this region.

The truth is, as much as I love to hate them, I can’t imagine the Tahoe region without tourists. No tourists showing up in droves during the weekends would mean our home had ceased to be a world-class winter wonderland, and my mind just refuses to conceptualize the Sierra Nevada without snow.

Our Vice President here at SBC, Greg Jones, recently told me that for every degree global temperatures rise, the snow level in the Sierra rises 500 feet. This means that at our current rate of climate disruption, good winters in the Sierra are likely to become fewer and farther between. Tourists’ visits are likely to dwindle in turn, and the local community members who make their livelihoods in the Sierra may have to pack up and move elsewhere or be forced to turn to new streams of revenue.

I chat with people from out of town pretty frequently—on chair lifts, in grocery store lines, when friends and relatives pass through the area, etc. The most common question I am asked is, “What do people do for work around here?” While there is a surprisingly complex network of nonprofits in Tahoe, a growing influx of the tech industry in nearby Reno, hospitals, law offices, and creative professionals left and right; the majority of the people in this town work within the tourism industry in one way or another.

Those of us who live in the Tahoe/Truckee area, and really the Sierra in general, can relate on traffic frustrations, the “don’t even think about turning into that Safeway parking lot” hours, and the experience of waiting over an hour for a pizza, but we also know that it’s all part of the price we pay for getting to live and work in this incredible mountain range. And I have to say, the idea of a Tahoe without tourists scares me because such an occurence could only be explained as a consequence of climate change – one that I hope very much never comes about.