The State of California has committed itself to a desperate gamble with Nevada casino interests in an attempt to save Lake Tahoe from destruction.
In one sense the conflict is a unique one between big government and big money in a setting that mixes the scenic glories of the nation's highest big lake with the more mundane excitements of slot machines and blackjack.
In another sense the conflict typifies the land management problem that confronts Americans everywhere in an area where the values of environmental preservation are posed against those of economic development.
By almost any definition. Lake Tahoe is a national treasure. Bisected by the California-Nevada state line, it is one of the world's few primoridally pure alpine lakes. At an elevation of 16,200 feet, it has a surface area of 193 square miles and a depth of 1,645 feet, containing enough water to cover the entire state of California to a depth of 14 inches.
"Surely the fairest picture the whole earth affords," Mark Twain wrote of it in the early 1860s. More than a century later, writer Neal Pierce described the profusion of casinos with their "gaudy neon beckoning the avaricious," and concluded: "It is all all obscene abomination, perhaps the most appalling assault on God-given natural beauty anywhere on the American continent."
Nonetheless, the lake itself seems highly savable to scientists who have studied it. In 1883 a writer observed in The Overland Monthly tha the water was so clear that a white dinner plate could be seen at depths of more than 100 feet. Today at Tahoe a black-and-white testing device known as the Secchi disc, which is about the size of a dinner plate, can sometimes be spotted at similar depths.
The growth of sewage-caused algae in the lake that threatens Tahoe's purity has been arrested by a sewage diversion project that takes the sewage out of the Tahoe basin. However, a recent report by the California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency concludes that the Tahoe basin is very near the population limit it can support with present sewage facilities.
Air pollution is even more critical. While the Tahoe basin has only 50,000 permanent residents, it has 15 million visitors annualy and an August population of 200,000. Its summer smog at the south end of the lake where the casinos cluster is half that of Los Angeles in oxidents and exceeds the health-damaging Los Angeles level in carbon monoxide and lead hydrocarbons.
California, with 42 miles of the 71-mile shoreline, intermittenly has tried to control develoipment at the lake, with limited success. A decade ago, during the administration of Republican governors Ronald Reagan of a bistate compact brought into being the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA), which at the time was hailed as a model of interstate cooperation to protect the environment.
It has not worked out that way. The legislation creating the compact contained a provision requiring a majority vote from both states' delegations before any project could be blocked. This frequently has meant de facto control for the gambling interests that are dominant politically in the counties on Nevada's state line.
So after attempts to persuade Nevada to change the dual majority system failed despite the support of Democratic Gov. Michael O'Callaghan. Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry: Brown's resources secretary. Huey D. Johnson, last October launched his own proposal.
pointing out that two-thirds of the land in the basin already is federally owned, mostly by the U.S. Forest Service. Johnson called for the establishment of a national recreation area that would embrace the entire Tahoe basin and control future development.
"We have given TRPA a fair trial," Johnson said. "In the American tradition we have attempted to solve our problems at the lowest possible government level, in this case at the bistate level. However, that effort has failed and there is a clear need now for the federal government to recognize its obligation. . . ."
In his three years as governor. Brown has gained the reputation of an executive who lets his top appointees move out front on difficult issues, then backs away from them in the face of controversy. Some legislators in Sacramento thought this also would be Johnson's fate.
However, after a period of waiting, Brown has backed Johnson to the hilt by refusing to fund California's share of the bistate agency in the budget he submitted to the legislature. Since California governors have the authority to blue-pencil any budget item, this is a decision that is likely it stick.
The theory behind the Johnson-Brown strategy is that the nonfunding will kill the agency and make the bistate compact a dead letter. Then the federal government will be forced to step in to prevent chaotic development that would completely wreck Lake Tahoe.
Not everyone is certain that it will work out this way. Reno attorney Thomas. Cooke, a member of the bistate panel, for instance, believes that developers on the Nevada side would leap to take advantage of any dissolution of the agency.
"The whole scheme could backfire," said the Nevada State Journal in a recent editorial. ". . . The length of time between the dissolution of the TRPA and creation of another body - federal or state - could result in a landslide of new development. California legislators are taking an extremely tightist tone concerning the lake. But we see little hope that their actions will result in any improvement."
The Brown administration does hold a few high cards. Hundreds of thousands of Californias reach the two-lane road which the state has relake each year over a mountainous fused to widen pending an outcome of the development controversy. Johnson is also convinced that gambling interests could be tempted to modify their opposition to a national recreation area if the federal government agrees to trade the casino owners some blocks of land near Las Vegas in return for the lakeside properties they want to develop.
Johnson, founder and ex-president of the Trust for Public Land, points out that there is a precedent for such land swaps in previous recreation areas created in California, Idaho and Ohio.
So far, however, no prominent congressman or senator in either California or Nevada has emerged to champion the cause of the national recreation area. Congressmen in both states traditionally have been reluctant to tangle with gambling interests because they fear the bankrolling of potential opponents by the profitable gambling industry.
Without a major congressional sponsor. Brown, and Johnson would appear to be in the position of the California tourists who flock to Nevada each year in an attempt to beat the casinos. As most of these tourists have learned to their sorrow, the percentages are with the house.