On a bluebird fall day, Don Lane greets me at the entrance of Nevada Beach in a Smokey Bear button down shirt with his characteristic big smile and infectious positivity. The U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Recreation Supervisor and Desolation Wilderness Manager is here to show me where his 50-year tenure with the agency all began.
As we approach a small cabin near the guard station for the recreation site, Lane tells me this was his home for over 40 years, until moving just last year to a private residence nearby due to the cabin’s advancing years. It’s where he spent his first night as an employee of the Forest Service in 1971 when he started as a summer ranger at this very beach while still an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 1978, it became his full-time residence.
“Over time you sleep on the beach. You live with the seasons. When the fall would come you keep an eye out for the eagles that fly by and look at you and flap on, or they’d set up on a limb on your office window and stare at you for the longest time,” recalled Lane. “You’d have the bears wander through here back and forth like they were tourists. And during the summer time, it was a flow of humanity, drawn to the area for its naturalness, its beauty.”
After several summers assigned at Nevada Beach, Lane worked as a fire patrolman and a wilderness ranger, both in the rugged Meiss Country south of Lake Tahoe and in Desolation Wilderness.
“I was suddenly alone for 10-14 day tours high in the backcountry isolated in a little tent with my only contact as a two-way radio,” said Lane. “My job every day was to put my backpack on, grab my shovel and wander the forest to try and talk to the public to make sure they were safe, they knew where they were going, and the land was being protected.”
Sometimes he would go days without seeing anyone, but he kept himself entertained by documenting what he saw in a notebook, reading and writing stories.
“You adjust to a different lifestyle. It also gave me the chance to hike anywhere I wanted. I woke up and looked out my tent and would say, ‘OK, I’m going to go to this lake today or follow this trail or go up that mountain pass,’” continued Lane. “It was a wild choice, but it also changed your reality as a human being. Instead of waking up and dealing with the chaos of humanity – cars and noise and record players and PA systems – all you could hear was the birds chirping or maybe a hoot from an owl or a coyote. It was a whole different world to exist in.”
After a few years of calling the backcountry home, Lane was promoted to Desolation Wilderness Manger, where he managed other rangers and worked to keep the mandate of the Wilderness Act in the 63,960 acres of federally protected land that calls for “an area where the earth and it’s community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
“One of the reasons that I’ve been here so long is that it’s been a gift to me to be a part of managing those resources – to be able to look at Mount Tallac and say, ‘I’m the ranger responsible for you. To know that you are part of that landscape.’” said Lane. “It’s not just a job. It’s not just a nine-to-five, complete these tasks and responsibilities and go home. That is your home. You reach into your heart and say, ‘I’ll do my best.’”
Lane leads with his heart. It’s a part of himself he refers to often when he talks of what’s captivated him about his work with the Forest Service and the Tahoe Basin, as well as the beauty of wild lands across the globe.
“I’ve been to Africa, India, China, Japan, the Galapagos, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, Alaska and Thailand,” he explained. “I hiked along the Great Wall. I trekked through the Himalayas. I spent a month on the Serengeti looking at wild animals looking back at me. I climbed Kilimanjaro. I’ve done enough things to know what a special place the world is. Regardless of any cultural debates or political challenges, the world is a complex and wondrous gift to humanity.”
To know Don Lane is to know Lake Tahoe. In one breath, he can recite a quote from Mark Twain describing his first glimpse of the lake before explaining enthusiastically, near poetically, the history of how the Wilderness Act came to protect precious lands across the United States. He will speak frankly about the challenges facing these lands such as overuse, litter, graffiti, fire; but remain unwaveringly positive about his ability to continue mentoring rangers and volunteers and educating the public about treating the natural world with care.
For 23 years, Lane spent thousands of hours of his own time researching the history of the lake to produce five stories a week, for free, for a radio program, which he would eventually compile into two books. He hoped a better understanding of Lake Tahoe would enrich people’s experiences here and inspire them to continue caring for it.
“There’s an old saying that wilderness had to be scarce before it was valued,” said Lane. “If something isn’t understood, it’s not valued. If it’s not valued, it’s not loved. If it’s not loved, it’s not protected. And if it’s not protected, it is lost.”
Underneath a towering, atilt Jeffrey pine that has called Tahoe home for hundreds of years, Lane and I sit at a picnic table looking out at the lake. “Look at this tree!” exclaimed Lane. “Leaning and continuously blown by the wind but still standing.”
We say our goodbyes and walk in separate directions down the beach, but not without Lane turning and shouting one last tidbit of history about the pavilion I was approaching. Because for Don Lane, to know is to care.