Incentives, community and the future of Lake Tahoe

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, July 29, 2014

When the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency was established in 1969, little was known about how common-interest communities such as the Lake Tahoe Basin might best be governed.

Still, rising anxieties over Basin environmental issues soon produced a consensus: Something had to be done.

Unfortunately, what eventually was done bore the tell-tale traces of both the anxieties and limited knowledge of that era — when the late Santa Barbara biology professor Garrett Hardin’s notion of “The Tragedy of the Commons” was dominating academia and environmentalism.

Hardin’s was a bleak vision: Unless essentially totalitarian government controls were imposed on human beings and the environment, the result for both would be catastrophic.

Thus, to preserve gems like Lake Tahoe, many came to believe, individual rights must be overridden and local governments stripped of powers.

And so the bi-state Tahoe Compact and TRPA came to be.

While both may have been the logical result of their time, their formation ignored an empirical reality that researchers have subsequently demonstrated many times — namely, that when common resources genuinely exist in nature, the communities that depend upon them can frequently, much more cost-effectively, establish and enforce rules fair to all.

As a result of this oversight, Tahoe residents were placed under the control of a distantly based yet overbearing bureaucratic agency that left little room for either property rights or the American tradition of local sovereignty.

“It is crucial to recognize that common property is shared private property,” wrote the late Dr. Elinor Ostrom, recipient of a Nobel Prize in economics for her empirical and theoretical research on common-interest communities.

The work of Ostrom and her colleagues should be of particular interest to the people of the Lake Tahoe Basin. That work offers alternatives to the coercive, zero-sum rule under which the residents were placed.

Virtually endless and from around the world, those alternatives illuminate avenues through which the region can flourish economically while its natural resources and beauty are yet protected.

Read the full study: "Incentives, community and the future of Lake Tahoe"

Steven Miller is senior vice president at the Nevada Policy Research Institute and managing editor of Nevada Journal. For more in-depth reporting, visit and