Squaw Valley: Green Or Greenwashing?


Squaw Valley Ski Holdings is in the news again. An article in this week’s Tahoe Daily Tribune covers the release of Squaw | Alpine’s “Environmental & Community Report 2014“, which attempts to show SVSH’s commitment to creating changes that may impact climate change. It’s not the only effort they have made in demonstrating their commitment to the environment. Over the past few months, we also have seen media releases covering the Red Dog thinning project, a partnership with the makers of the Nest thermostat, and a growing partnership with Protect Our Winters. While we can be grateful that they are making some effort to recognize climate change, we also have to question whether those efforts are meaningful, or simply greenwashing.

The sport of sliding on snow is rarely green or sustainable in itself. Few of us actually “earn our turns” by using our own legs. Ski lifts, snowmaking and snowcats all use far more energy, and thereby produce more carbon, than many other recreational activities. There are ski areas and ski resorts around the world that have taken some very meaningful actions to reduce environmental impacts. Squaw Valley’s former owners were not known for their environmental sensitivity, so the fact that KSL and SVSH recognize the problems at hand is significant.

So what’s in the report? Here’s a quick synopsis:

  • Boiler upgrades in the corporate offices at the OVI building and condos in the Village
  • Automated thermostats in High Camp
  • Replacement of incandescent bulbs with LED bulbs
  • Installation of low flow toilets in public restrooms
  • Investment in snowmaking equipment that reduces the need for compressed air
  • Installed electric car charging stations for 4 vehicles
  • Instituted free shuttle service between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows
  • Provide bus passes for all employees to encourage use of public transit
  • Participates in the typical recycling and composting that we should all be doing routinely
  • Partnered with The Tahoe Fund, Green Bucks, The Tahoe Food Hub and Protecting Our Winters.

NestWhile that list seems comprehensive, the reality is that it’s not as much as it seems to be. Some of those changes are mandated by the state of California, where it is now virtually impossible to buy an incandescent bulb. Some of those changes represent deferred maintenance, and things like boilers and snow guns have simply improved across the board since they were last purchased. Will a few Nest thermometers really help preserve snow for future generations? If you have paid attention to Squaw’s #NestExpress campaign, you would believe those thermostats are the Holy Grail for fighting climate change.

“It’s greenwashing when a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be “green” through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact.”  – GreenwashingIndex.com

So is Squaw Valley Ski Holdings and Squaw Valley Real Estate as green as they want us to believe? We don’t think so, and you probably already knew that. Here’s a list of concerns:

• Squaw Valley and KSL still plan to build around 1000 housing units in Olympic Valley. The footprint of the new Village At Squaw Valley will be about 8 times the footprint of the current village.

• Construction of the new village would span as much as 25 years. That construction will rely on a lot of heavy equipment, whose carbon output will far surpass current reductions.

• Plans call for building heights as high as 108 feet and narrowed pedestrian pathways. There will be few opportunities for natural light and passive solar heating within the new buildings. With most pedestrian areas in the shade for most of the day, it is more likely that heated walkways and outdoor heaters will become a part of the new village.

• Construction of the new village is likely to result in the construction of the “8 Mile Pipe” to import water from an entirely different watershed in Martis Valley.

• Construction will eliminate the current winter snow storage space for snow removed from the village and parking lot area. During periods of excessive snowfall, it’s likely that energy would be needed to melt snow, or it would need to be trucked out of the valley.

• New construction will include the 90,000 square foot Mountain Adventure Center that includes an indoor waterpark and other “features” that already exist in the great outdoors. Relatively speaking, the MAC will be an energy hog.

• The village plan includes plans for 1/7 fractional ownership homes to be built at the mouth and hillside of Shirley Canyon, an area that is currently undeveloped. SVRE routinely claims that they are essentially redeveloping parking lots.

• Before the joint pass between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows was created, the number of daily trips between the two resorts was negligible, and was served by public transportation. While SVSH wants us to believe that the shuttle is a move to reduce vehicle traffic, we instead see it as 300,000 miles a year of shuttles that did not need to happen. Why not encourage visitors to go to one resort and stay there for a day? Nobody needs to experience 30 lifts in one day.

• SVSH CEO Andy Wirth has clearly emphasized his goal of bringing in more international travelers to Squaw Valley. He has been instrumental in bringing more direct flights into the Reno-Tahoe airport. Airplane transportation is one of the least green forms of transportation available to us as humans, but Squaw’s CEO says it’s critical to the success of local ski areas.

• Wirth was also the chair of the committee formed to bring the Olympics to Lake Tahoe in 2022. While the Olympics may have been lucrative financially for the Tahoe region, they would be an environmental disaster. It does not matter where you are, building a new venue every 4 years does not make sense for our environment. A perfect venue still exists only 2 states away in Utah.

• SVSH has distributed more “on paper” promotional material in the last year than I have received from any ski area in a lifetime. The news of the “green turn” at Squaw arrived in my mailbox as a part of the 80 page glossy Squaw magazine, which arrived at the same time as the similar Mountain Collective magazine. Fearful that these items might get separated in mailing, the marketing department also thought it might be nice to wrap them in plastic. It was also reported that a paper version of the green report was also inserted into this week’s edition of the Sierra Sun. Squaw Valley also sends out marketing calendars twice a year. Much of this material will go right to a landfill.

• Making donations and strategic partnerships with environmental groups is not real environmental action. We’re disappointed that groups, such as Protect Our Winters, are willing to tarnish their reputations by supporting Squaw Valley and their plan to create what may be the Sierra Nevada’s largest commercial development ever. Previously, we reported on the influence SVSH has held over local non-profits.

 “I have seen firsthand the commitment Squaw Valley & Alpine Meadows have made to operating a sustainable resort—their actions are real.” – Jeremy Jones, Protect Our Winters

Need we go on? While Squaw Valley has taken some minimalistic actions at environmental responsibility, we’re still waiting to see some real change. We have some suggestions to begin with:

• Focus on a local and regional market rather than focus on bringing in visitors from afar. More than 11 million people live within a few hours drive of Lake Tahoe.

• Implement meaningful reductions in energy use through alternative energy sources. Solar is quite affordable these days, with many installations paying for themselves in 7 years or less. Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows would not be the first resort to utilize solar technology.

• Encourage car-pooling through programs such as upfront parking or punch cards that earn free food or lift tickets.

• Show the commitment to sustainability by eliminating the sale of bottled water and supporting the “Drink Tahoe Tap” movement. The movement of bottled water around the world is a ridiculous waste of resources.

• Plan a village that meets the needs of the community and vacation market, not to fit investment targets set by investors who may never set foot in Tahoe.

We look forward to the day when we see a stronger commitment to environmental stewardship from Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, Squaw Valley Real Estate and KSL Capital. We all are going to have to work a lot harder at making sure there is still snow to enjoy for years to come.


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