Guest Editorial by Annie Beaman, Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League
Earlier this month on Labor Day weekend, two spokespeople of the proposed Squaw-Alpine gondola (White Wolf landowner Troy Caldwell and Squaw Valley Ski Holdings CEO Andy Wirth) led presentations at Alpine Meadows Lodge to discuss their development plans and respond to questions from local residents. Andy Wirth repeatedly emphasized his own credibility and honesty, as well as his interest in community input regarding ongoing development plans.
In reality, Squaw Valley Ski Holdings (“SVSH”) has been neither honest nor transparent in its planning process for the Squaw-to-Alpine gondola proposal. Wirth’s complaints about “misinformation” only lead to more confusion which helps SVSH to proceed with its plans regardless of community input and public interest. One good example of this is Wirth’s references to a recent “controversy” regarding maps of the proposed gondola route, which environmentalists and others have pointed out crosses the Congressionally-designated boundary of the Granite Chief Wilderness Area. Wirth tells a small part of the truth when he emphasizes that the proposed gondola route is on privately-owned land. That’s a fact that no one disputes… but it’s not even close to the full story.
IS IT WILDERNESS OR NOT?
Here’s the whole truth: SVSH’s gondola proposal simply ignores the designated wilderness boundary. There is no question and no dispute about whether or not the gondola route goes through designated wilderness–the proposed route is most certainly within the designated boundary of the Granite Chief Wilderness. Likewise, no one doubts the ownership of the parcel in question; this is a wilderness inholding currently owned by Troy Caldwell, one of many such inholdings that exist because private property rights predated wilderness preservation in our country. [More background on Caldwell’s longtime vision for developing a private ski area.]
Rather than disputing property ownership, environmental groups are questioning SVSH’s complete disregard for the very real designated boundary of the wilderness. This boundary is absolutely beyond doubt; it was established by the United States Congress in 1984, and it has been reflected in every official map of the area including the new U.S. Forest Service map at the Five Lakes trailhead (which is also located on Caldwell’s land).
Under current U.S. Forest Service policy, wilderness inholdings are not actively managed as wilderness. Congress includes private lands in wilderness designations as a way to express intent to acquire the land whenever it becomes available, especially where there is an obvious ecological connection that would improve the functions and values of the combined wilderness area. This is exactly the case at Granite Chief: in its northeast corner, the wilderness boundary juts outward to include the Five Lakes and surrounding area. For the hundreds of thousands of people who have hiked Five Lakes Trail, it makes perfect sense that Congress intended to acquire and manage the entire basin surrounding the Five Lakes, and therefore included it in the official designation.
SVSH’s gondola would foil that long-term vision for public use and protection of the delicate Five Lakes ecosystem. A high-speed gondola along the western edge of Caldwell’s inholding will transform the Five Lakes area forever, while also changing the fundamental character of Alpine Meadows–something discussed in more detail in a recent op-ed by Andy Wertheim. One of the most egregious and off-putting aspects of the proposed gondola route is a load and unload station adjacent to particularly sensitive lands that have been honored and held sacred for at least fifty years (and likely much longer). These remarkable pristine areas are what the Sierras are all about, providing inspiration and solitude for many generations of visitors including early Sierra advocates like John Muir. Five Lakes Trail is itself ancient–once used as a sheep trail to move herds between the valleys–it is among the most popular hikes in Northern California and open to the public pursuant to an irrevocable easement that requires any private landowner to make the trail available for public use.
SVSH continues to display a large wall map that intentionally deceives viewers by omitting the designated wilderness boundary. Compare SVSH’s map to the official Forest Service map, every other official government map since the mid-1980s, and the meticulously-researched Sierra Watch map of the proposed gondola route. The truth will become clear: the only party that is promoting “misinformation” regarding maps of the proposed gondola route is SVSH.
NUGGETS OF TRUTH IN A MOUNTAIN OF B.S.
As CEO of SVSH, Wirth is first and foremost an advocate for his shareholders, his business, and the customers it serves. Wirth acknowledged that much in perhaps the most honest statement of his recent presentations, when he noted that SVSH has approximately 275,000 customers per year and that his priority is serving them. As CEO, it is also incumbent upon him to grow profitability for shareholders and “build equity” for the Colorado-based parent company, KSL Capital Partners. This is essential for understanding why Wirth is so motivated to pursue such an expensive and controversial plan: the gondola is a part of a larger vision toward a mega-resort profit-machine involving both Squaw and Alpine– it is necessary infrastructure for expanding SVSH’s Tahoe domain and building equity for KSL. If all goes well for SVSH, a base-to-base gondola would bring millions in seasonal revenues from skiers as well as locals who are interested in easy transportation between Squaw and Alpine.
Unfortunately, the wilderness map isn’t the only reality that SVSH has swept under the rug in their rush to build and expand. Another major issue is that SVSH bases its project plans (and projected profits) on 2010 data for the number of skiers and anticipated snowpack level. Wirth mentioned in his recent presentation that he plans as much to 15 years into the future in his role as CEO. Climate models unanimously predict a significantly reduced seasonal snowpack in the Sierra within that 15-year timeline and accelerating thereafter, with warmer weather leading to more frequent and sustained droughts, more rain, and much less snow overall. Californians are already dealing with the hottest and driest conditions on record as well as the lowest Sierra snowpack in 500 years. While we cannot predict specific weather conditions from year to year, we should prepare and plan for what we know is coming: warmer weather and less snow.
Given the scientific projections and consensus surrounding climate change and its impacts to the Sierra, why would SVSH focus on a 15-year timeline for this heavy-duty infrastructure project rather than 50, 100, or 250 years? Because permanent infrastructure will lead to profits, but in order to be truly honest about how, SVSH would have to admit that certain unpopular uses of the proposed gondola are extremely likely. These include year-round operations (Wirth emphasizes that SVSH “does not intend” to open the gondola year-round, but provides no guarantees), and significant development in Alpine Meadows (again, Wirth stated that he has “no plans” to significantly expand lodging and other amenities at Alpine Meadows, but provides no certainty in the short-term 15-year timeline or beyond).
NEXT STEPS FOR DEVELOPERS & COMMUNITY MEMBERS
So what do we know for sure? (1) A high-speed base-to-base gondola connecting Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows would wreak havoc on the delicate ecosystem of the Granite Chief and Five Lakes Basin. (2) SVSH has offered no guarantees regarding year-round use or increased development/commercialization of Alpine Meadows. (3) The proposed gondola, if approved, will be a precursor to more development impacting the Five Lakes Trail, where Caldwell plans to complete a long-delayed chair lift (the towers for this lift were built around 10 years ago), build another chairlift, and build 38 houses. (4) SVSH will extract significant profits from any new infrastructure, or if these investments prove to be unprofitable, the private equity model will result in SVSH selling the assets off to the highest bidder at some future point.
Wirth stated that SVSH will issue its first formal permit applications in approximately 120 days from Labor Day, or early December. Environmental groups and public interest groups will review all permit applications carefully, and will likely oppose key aspects of the project. Members of the public should also have an opportunity to comment and weigh-in on the formal proposal.
The base-to-base gondola would be a completely unsustainable project for this area. Granite Chief and Five Lakes are beloved and highly functional; providing clean water for downstream use, habitat for endangered and threatened species, serene natural beauty, and above all a place to enjoy the experience of immersing oneself in the wild. We have all inherited an unfortunate situation whereby remote venture-capital firms can purchase and develop lands with minimal regard for community or ecological impacts. Now, it’s on us to fight against this project to protect the Granite Chief Wilderness for current and future generations alike.
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