Taking From the Public Trust: The Squaw-Alpine Gondola

Image via Snowbrains.com
Image via Snowbrains.com

The following guest editorial was submitted by Daniel Heagerty of The Public Trust Water Project

The proposed Squaw-Alpine Gondola would cross into a Congressionally designated national Wilderness Area, regardless of the current property boundaries. Wilderness Areas are part of our nations’ Public Trust. The Public Trust Doctrine, carried over from Roman and British Law, holds that certain natural resources are so important that they must be protected for all citizens and for future generations. The Wilderness Act states unequivocally the purpose of it’s protections.

“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” – The 1964 Wilderness Act

Granite Chief Wilderness Area and Five Lakes were recognized as warranting that level of protection and purpose. Thus these lands were specifically set aside as national Public Trust Assets, to be honored and protected, never to be exploited or diminished for private gain (i.e. the Public Trust Doctrine).

The developers suggest that the proposed gondola would have little to no impact on the Granite Chief Wilderness Area or the surrounding environs. Yet the thousands of hikers going into Five Lakes every year would be traversing large towers and passing under grinding cables and suspended “cars.” The gondola would be forever visible from numerous locations within the Wilderness, and the industrial noise of operations would penetrate into lands specifically set aside to be protected from man’s noise and clamor. Properties adjacent to our Wilderness Areas, regardless of ownership, hold a particularly elevated responsibility to honor that national interest.

The public should not be surprised when gondola plans evolve to include provisions for offloading passengers adjacent to our Wilderness Area. Literally thousands of additional people discharged into Five Lakes and Granite Chief, every month, for “a short, easy walk.” Maybe a paved walkway. This high lakes ecosystem already suffers from overuse. The climate models clearly point to less snow in the Sierras and shorter ski seasons, which suggests the gondola would need aggressive year-round promotion for use.

Five Lakes is one of the most popular hikes in the entire Tahoe Basin, in large part because it’s a healthy hike, rewarding the individual with that which can not be bought- silence, calm, unfettered beauty. An increasingly rare commodity in the Tahoe Basin. Squaw Valley had places like that decades ago, but Squaw no longer holds such treasures nor protects such values.

Five Lakes was saved for the public by a man with a true vision and a strong belief in the Public Trust. He cobbled together from individuals enough money to buy Five Lakes before it was lost to private interests, and he then turned that land over to the U.S. Forest Service for eventual Wilderness protection. Troy Caldwell’s land (the route for the gondola) would have been included in that early land protection effort, to buffer Five Lakes and Granite Chief from future developments, but funds were limited. At the time there were other critical natural areas around Tahoe under more immediate threats of development. Troy ended up with his Alpine parcels decades later and long after the Five Lakes Trail was etched across those slopes by individuals seeking solitude and quiet.

The developers of the proposed gondola expound their love of the mountains and care for the environment. But they have an unfinished ski lift very near the gondola route, towers standing vacant for years, blighting the Five Lakes Trail. The proposed gondola’s visual impact would reach much further into the Wilderness and many more miles of trails. And already plans are emerging for 38 new houses to go on that same land as the proposed gondola.

There is a bigger vision, an opportunity for a true legacy for future generations. A wilderness of peace and unfettered beauty, rich with inspiration and gratitude, safe in its sacredness.

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