Perhaps the defining moment of the Squaw Valley development mayhem currently engulfing the unincorporated community of North Lake Tahoe was a scene from late 2016, at the Placer County Board of Supervisors meeting where a controversial development plan for KSL and Squaw Valley was approved.
Moonshine Ink reporter Melissa Siig—who has covered the Squaw Valley project more thoroughly than anyone—sat in the meeting room that day. “It was like being at a wedding,” she told me. “One side of the room was wearing white and was mostly employees of Squaw and stood to benefit from the project.” The other side was purple, the color of the ‘Keep Squaw True’ t-shirts. The meeting was emotional and tense, according to Siig: “People are passionate about Squaw Valley.”
Passionate because the resort is a California crown jewel. With nearly 3,000-vertical-feet and one of the most iconic headwalls in the sport, it’s essentially the birthplace of extreme. Legends like Scot Schmidt, Shane McConkey, JT Holmes and Jeremy Jones have called Squaw their home mountain. When the resort hosted the 1960 Olympics it essentially established California—and Tahoe–as a winter sports destination.
KSL’s master plan, to be completed over 30 years, includes 850 lodging units, 1,500 bedrooms, and 200,000 feet of commercial space with a 90,000-square-foot adventure camp, including a “water park,” that has drawn a special sort of backlash from Tahoe locals (more on that later).
Numbered articles are clichéd, but in this case, it was necessary to give the chaos order (even a little), and a way to look at where to go from here. Squaw Valley isn’t officially a ‘mountain town’ but its expansion plan is splitting a community. So here are four things we can take away from the controversy.
Admit When the Relationship is Broken
Dig into Squaw Valley’s history even a little, and it’s clear that conflict has been a fabric of the mountain’s existence. Alexander Cushing and Wayne Poulsen, Squaw’s founders famously split with Cushing pushing Poulsen out of the business in the late 1940s. “What happened between my father and Alex Cushing was the watershed that created this immense and unsurpassable barrier between one part of the valley and the other,” Wayne Poulsen, Jr. told Powder magazine in 2014. Cushing’s constant expansion of the mountain and environmental negligence as he did so drew the ire of the entire community over the years. He liked to remind people he was in, “the uphill transportation business.” He was on the resort’s board until his death in 2006.
In 2012, a group of locals set out to incorporate the homeowners in the area into a town called Olympic Valley to gain a county seat so decisions on land use would be made locally instead of in Auburn, the county seat an hour west where only one person on the five-member Board of Supervisors lives in the North Lake Tahoe area. ‘Incorporate Olympic Valley,’ was born. In response, the ski resort established the entity ‘Save Olympic Valley’ to oppose the incorporation, which would harm the resort’s expansion plans, spending nearly a million dollars on the opposition campaign. The naming of that opposition plan hit many locals in the gut, many of whom felt it came off as a corporate entity taking advantage of grassroots monikers to protect profits. Even if that wasn’t entirely true, it didn’t smell right and the Incorporate Olympic Valley campaign eventually died.
Now with a “Keep Squaw True,” campaign organized by The Sierra Watch going full force in the valley and 7,000 residents signing an anti-development document, it’s evident that the relationship between resort and community needs an intervention. An intermediary wouldn’t hurt either.
Resorts, Know the Culture of Your Community (Think Branding)
In 2010, Squaw Valley was purchased by KSL, a corporate skiing company that has purchased a number of resorts in what has become an arms race of resort conglomeration. CEO Andy Wirth, who led Colorado’s Steamboat Springs before coming to Squaw Valley with KSL, has led the expansion efforts, which by all accounts, are massive.
A theme that keeps appearing in public comment is that the expansion doesn’t fit the North Lake Tahoe aura, a decidedly different culture than that of South Lake Tahoe with its casinos and tourist attractions. The proposed 90,000-square-foot adventure camp with the indoor waterpark has literally been scoffed at by a large portion of the community. “We just need any development done in a way that respects Tahoe values,” says Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch.
Mooers speaks for many locals says Siig. “This (adventure park) pisses people off because it doesn’t match the culture,” she says. “We have these beautiful, magical lakes and the Truckee River. Make it an Olympic or Woodward training center and people would get behind it.”
And that’s before the environmental concerns over increased traffic and use. “Traffic in Tahoe is more than just an inconvenience,” says Mooers. “It’s a threat to the clarity of Lake Tahoe itself, probably the biggest threat. Cars drive in the basin, emit pollution, turn up sentiment. All that washes into the lake every year. The lake is getting less and less clear.” Mooers and his team estimate that the new development at Squaw will bring 1,000 new cars into the Tahoe Basin daily.
Communities, Be Willing to Compromise to Keep Cherished Resorts
One thing the entire North Lake Tahoe community can agree on is that Squaw Valley is a special place loaded with soul. But in a competitive ski resort market, it needs an upgrade. Locals and second-home owners alike want the resort to shine like the pillar it should be. Namely, the resort needs lodging. Wirth told us that the industry has “left them in the dust,” and he’s been tasked with closing that gap. Lift ticket prices are exorbitant everywhere but they don’t come close to covering the cost of running the mountain, says Wirth. “We are not developers,” he said. “We don’t intend to be. We simply have an overarching need for lodging.”
Wirth also takes exception with the characterization of the resort’s plans. “It was being put out there that we were going to build this garish, inappropriate, Chucky Cheese-style water park and that was never the case,” he said. “We’re very focused on the aesthetics. That’s as important to us as it is to anybody. I guess what’s been disappointing is the vitriol.”
But that vitriol is probably aimed at the massive size of the expansion more than anything else (the plan has been re-worked by Squaw Valley but not enough to satisfy locals). Clearly, a compromise needs to be made. “I think the community would be okay if the project was cut in half,” says Siig, who estimates 75 percent of North Lake Tahoe residents are opposed to the plan as is. “But I don’t think Squaw would do that. It wouldn’t pencil out. But if that happened, I could see a lot of people coming to the table to support them.”
Individuals Can Make a Difference
Yes it can still happen. Squaw Valley isn’t a town and is run and operated mostly on private land. Which makes this issue that much more complicated. “A lot of people argue that the owner should have the right to put whatever they want inside that building,” local author Robb Gaffney told us. “But whatever goes inside that building is going to have an effect on the rest of Squaw Valley, and Tahoe, frankly.”
Concerns over the environment (not the least of which is increased water use and stress on a single aquifer) traffic increases and rising home prices have seen this community organize itself. Lead by the Keep Squaw True campaign and Sierra Watch and empowered by those nearly 7,000 signatures in opposition, that community has put its proverbial foot down. “This isn’t the first time Tahoe has been threatened by a ridiculous development proposal,” says Mooers. “Fifty years ago, there was a proposal to urbanize the Tahoe Basin with double and triple bans of freeway around the lake. Previous generations stood up and fought. They needed to pass something on to us. Now it’s our turn.”
Mooers cites years of legislation designed to prevent one private landowner from ruining the Tahoe environment for everyone else and adds that Sierra Watch plans to use every legal means in the fight. “The way the legal challenges (go), we can gum up the works for years,” he says. “The courts are backed up and moving at a snail’s pace. It’s very likely KSL’s proposed development will be bogged down for years. But our goal isn’t to delay a bad project. It’s not to win a lawsuit. We want them to abandon the current proposal and talk about something that makes sense. We don’t need a water park when we have one of the greatest natural water resources in the world in Lake Tahoe.”
Editor’s Note: Squaw Valley is currently embroiled in two court proceedings: Sierra Watch is suing Placer County and Squaw Valley for violation of the Brown Act, which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings regarding local legislation. The second is a suit by Sierra Watch stating that Placer County’s approval of the project wasn’t in line with the California Environmental Quality Act. Both cases are scheduled to be heard in March.