An American Indian tribe with deep roots in the Lake Tahoe basin is seeking to reclaim land that’s part of a Nevada resort area.
The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California wants to ask Congress for nearly 375 acres of federal land in Incline Village.
The property includes land that’s part of Diamond Peak Ski Resort and along fairways at Incline Village Championship Golf Course.
Tribal chairman Neil Mortimer made the request as part of an effort by Washoe County to shift thousands of acres from federal to private or local government ownership.
“We just feel strongly if federal land is going to be transferred, it should be returned to its original owners,” Mortimer said. “Part of who we are, part of what identifies us as a people is the land we are on.”
The tribe’s request is a duplicate of a request from the Incline Village General Improvement District, the entity that operates the ski area and golf course.
Incline Village and county officials had been working together since 2016 to include the U.S. Forest Service-owned property in a draft of a lands bill that county officials would submit to Congress.
But Mortimer said Washoe tribal officials only recently learned about the plan, called the Washoe County Economic Development and Conservation Act. They didn’t get to participate in the earlier planning stages when county officials met with local governments and representatives of environmental and industry groups to create the draft.
Without access to the planning process, Washoe Tribe officials looked at the other transfer requests and based theirs on what IVGID submitted. IVGID already owns the main areas and structures at the ski resort and golf courses. The land in both requests is generally at the edges of IVGID property.
“We didn’t generate the map, we just identified the parcels they had up for grabs,” Mortimer said.
Map: The blue-colored parcels represent the land being claimed by the Washoe Tribe. Data provided by Washoe County. Map by Brian Duggan/RGJ
It will be up to the tribe and IVGID to work with Washoe County to resolve the competing transfer requests before the lands bill goes to Congress.
"We will have to meet with the individual groups to walk through their proposals and will have to take it from there," said Jamie Rodriguez, a management analyst and government affairs specialist working on the bill draft. "Each previous conflict has been different and there is no one way to address these."
Tribe’s Tahoe roots
Although the tribe’s modern-day communities are in Woodfords, Calif., Carson Valley and the Reno-Sparks area, Lake Tahoe is at the geographic and spiritual heart of Washoe culture.
The lake, called Da.aw in the Washoe language, once produced large trout and freshwater clams that sustained the people throughout the year.
From Lake Tahoe, the Washoe people spread out in separate bands in four directions, generally ranging from Honey Lake north of Reno to Mono Lake to the south, and east from Walker Lake to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The Washoe’s ability to thrive as hunter-gatherers in a region of abundant water, fish, game and nuts came to an abrupt end with the arrival of the California Gold Rush and subsequent silver rush in Nevada.
Within a few years, settlers plundered natural resources, vastly diminishing Tahoe’s fish and clearing the land of trees.
With the Washoe and other American Indians driven from the best land, settlers embarked on more than a century of mining, logging and real estate development that evolved into the economy of today.
“The resources of the land the Washoe people occupied have made countless people wealthy,” Mortimer said.
In the meantime, the Washoe people were driven into confined communities outside the Tahoe Basin and forced into schools that sought to erase their culture.
In recent years, the tribe has sought to revive Washoe culture and improve the economic prospects for the estimated 1,550 members. It owns a travel plaza and casino in Gardnerville and operates Meeks Bay Resort on Forest Service land at Lake Tahoe.
In a 2003 bill by then-Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the tribe recovered nearly 25 acres just north of Skunk Harbor on Tahoe’s east shore. The legislation transferred the land to the Department of the Interior to be held in trust for the tribe. It also prohibited commercial and residential development or recreation.
At the time, then-Washoe chairman Brian Wallace noted the Washoe had been “forcibly removed” and that the land’s return provided “a sanctuary and a place of solitude where they can go for important tribal ceremonies and cultural practices, many of which involve Lake Tahoe itself, the core of the Washoe’s historic homeland and culture.”
The tribe has also recovered land in the Carson City area.
The tribe’s new request for land in Incline Village is a chance to reclaim more historic terrain in the Tahoe Basin.
“It is more of an opportunity for us to be part of something,” Mortimer said.
Resort operators have own vision for the land
Although the entirety of the Tahoe Basin was the domain of the Washoe people for thousands of years, an IVGID official said that in recent decades, the district has been capable stewards of land within its master plan area.
“As you may know, IVGID has spent the past few decades conducting a very active fuels management and forest health program on the IVGID lands surrounding our community,” IVGID General Manager Steve Pinkerton said in an email. “Acquisition of these key parcels would assist in expanding those efforts to ensure the lands that comprise the Wildland Urban Interface surrounding our community and District owned facilities are proactively managed to mitigate the risks of high severity wildfires.”
In addition to Diamond Peak ski resort, the Tahoe Rim Trail winds through the area.
Pinkerton said in the email that transferring the federal land to the district would “enhance the quality of public recreation available to the residents and visitors to the communities of Incline Village and Crystal Bay.”
IVGID was founded in 1961 to levy taxes and pay for improvements in the Incline Village area, a community on the northeastern shore of Lake Tahoe that’s among the wealthiest in Nevada.
In 1965, the district expanded beyond water and sewer by adding recreation to its responsibilities, and purchased two beaches in 1968.
It added the two golf courses in 1976, and in 1986 completed a ski master plan before relaunching Ski Incline as Diamond Peak in 1988.
The district is now seeking to expand summer activities at Diamond Peak, and its master plan includes lodge renovations, canopy tours and an additional lift.
Assistant Washoe County Manager Dave Solaro said the federal land in IVGID’s transfer request falls within the resort’s master plan area.
“The District looks forward to working with the Washoe Tribe and Washoe County to discuss the mutual interests in the parcels and reach a positive outcome,” Pinkerton said by email.
Successful lands bills built on trust, transparency
The Washoe County lands bill is an attempt to build on a model that’s been used several times in Nevada and around the West.
Often, the bills involve Congress transferring federal parcels of land near communities so they can more easily be used for economic development. The bills often pair economic development goals with environmental preservation by applying wilderness designations to sensitive areas.
“You can literally change the map forever with this type of legislation and make people’s lives better,” said Neil Kornze, who worked on lands bills as a staff member for Reid from 2003-11 and as director of the Bureau of Land Management from 2014-17.
Congress has approved lands bills for Clark, Lincoln and White Pine counties, and bills for Pershing and Douglas counties are pending.
Although lands bills have the potential to resolve economic and environmental problems, they are complex and require trust among the negotiators.
“These pieces of legislation are really about best practices; there is no rulebook, no strict set of parameters,” Kornze said. “That is where the time spent building these things is very important.”
In the case of the Washoe County lands bill, it appears the Washoe tribal government was excluded from the drafting process until recently.
According to a timeline from Washoe County, IVGID officials have been in contact with county officials on the bill since the middle of 2016. The IVGID board approved a resolution of support on Dec. 14, 2016.
County officials held three meetings with local government, environmental, development, ranching and mining stakeholders in December 2017.
It wasn’t until January that Rodriguez notified the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, a group with representatives from 27 tribes around the state.
By the time word filtered to the Washoe Tribe and the tribal officials had a chance to contact the county, it was Feb. 28.
It wasn’t until a public meeting on the bill on April 24 in Reno that the Washoe Tribe submitted their request in writing seeking the same land that IVGID wants.
“They have been discussing this for two years, we have only known about it less than a month,” Mortimer said.
During the April 24 public meeting and another on April 26, hundreds of people testified, mostly in opposition to various aspects of the bill.
Now that the Washoe tribe made a request, county and IVGID officials have promised to negotiate.
Solaro, the assistant county manager, said there’s nothing to prevent Congress from transferring the land to the Washoe, but it can’t give the property to both IVGID and the tribe.
Mortimer said he’s looking forward to working with IVGID and the county to deliver a bill draft everyone can agree to.
“It is much more than just the Diamond Peak ski resort,” he said. “There are other opportunities in Washoe County.”
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