Business & Real Estate

Squaw Valley chief faces community opposition to expansion

Squaw Valley CEO Andy Wirth knows how to stay calm under pressure.

In October 2013 he hit a pole while skydiving outside Lodi, shearing off most of his right arm and causing massive bleeding from an artery that runs from the shoulder to the forearm. A former backcountry ranger with medic experience, Wirth knew his life was on the line.

He needed to slow the bleeding or he would die before paramedics arrived. He knew shock kills many trauma victims before they can be rescued, so Wirth employed a trick from his ranger days: He told himself to repeat lines from the Pearl Jam song, “Just Breathe.”

Wirth stuck his left hand under his right armpit, stanching the blood before another skydiver arrived and fashioned a tourniquet out of a strap, at Wirth’s direction. Wirth told himself he would survive if he held on until the air ambulance arrived, and that is exactly what happened.

Today, through multiple surgeries and physical therapy, Wirth has regained use of his right arm. His response to the accident serves as the best example of what he considers a cornerstone of his character: resilience.

He’s tapping that trait as he presses forward with a plan to greatly expand the facilities at Squaw Valley. Many Tahoe-area residents and environmentalists oppose his proposal, and at times, their criticism has become personal.

Since coming to Squaw in 2010 to lead the resort in its “next phase of growth,” Wirth made the decision to buy Alpine Meadows, the ski resort just south of Squaw. He introduced a plan to link the resorts with a gondola next to the federally protected Granite Chief Wilderness. Wirth’s plans for Squaw Valley include a substantial increase in residential and overnight housing, new bars and restaurants and a 108-feet-tall, 90,000-square-foot “mountain adventure center.”

Costs are difficult to estimate because the project will be built over 25 years by developers who will buy rights to the land from Squaw, Wirth said. Squaw Valley’s goal is to bring more skiers to the mountain, not make money from real estate, he added.

More than 300 people and several agencies commented on an environmental review of the project, and most were critical, said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a nonprofit that has been a leading critic of Wirth and the project. The Placer County Board of Supervisors will eventually be asked to sign off on the project.

Sierra Watch, Sierra Club and other organizations have opposed Wirth’s plan to build a gondola next to Granite Chief, a popular spot for hikers that includes a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. The gondola must be approved by the U.S. Forest Service and Placer County.

Wirth said the development plan will return Squaw, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, to its past glory days and make it an international destination. The community will benefit from increased tourism, he said.

Daredevil CEO

Wirth, 52, has worked in the ski industry since graduating from Colorado State University. Before coming to Squaw, he spent his whole career in Steamboat Springs, Colo., first at the resort that shares the name of the town and then at a company that owns several resorts, including Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada, the largest ski resort in North America. Previously two separate resorts, Whistler and Blackcomb were merged in a plan that became a model for Squaw and Alpine Meadows. Six years ago Wirth was hired by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, a company owned by KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm that invests in travel and leisure companies.

Wearing a camouflage ski jacket, blue jeans and aviator shades as he walked to his office for an interview, Wirth said, “I run a $100 million company, but I’m not a corporate guy.”

He showed his charismatic side in an episode of the CBS show “Undercover Boss,” in which he sported a mullet wig to try to disguise himself from his then-relatively new employees. The show highlighted some of the difficulties Alpine Meadows employees encountered under a new owner.

Wirth is a mountain climber, an advanced skier who gets on the mountain as many as 65 times a season, and until his accident, a regular skydiver. He advertises his love of adventure with a large black-and-white photo hanging behind his office desk. The picture is of Shane McConkey skiing a mountain wall at Squaw that looks too steep to ski. A legendary skier, McConkey died while skydiving in 2009.

Since Wirth skirted death in 2013, three of his friends have died in similar accidents, including Erik Roner, who crashed into a tree while skydiving at a charity golf tournament at Squaw. Yet Wirth isn’t prepared to give up skydiving.

“I just don’t know if I’m done yet,” he said, adding that he has not skydived since the accident. “It’s the most intense, fun and exhilarating feeling I have ever had.”

Wirth’s risky pursuits make him right at home in Squaw Valley, where hotdog skiers such as JT Holmes and Olympic gold-medal winner Jonny Moseley helped burnish the resort’s image as a place where steep and obstacle-filled runs provide a nirvana for the highly skilled. A section of the resort called KT-22 was once listed on SKI Magazine’s “Devil’s Half Dozen” because of its notoriously challenging runs.

Wirth said Squaw is perfectly complemented by Alpine Meadows, where wide and open runs appeal to less advanced skiers than those at Squaw. By joining Squaw and Alpine Meadows, Wirth hopes to create one of the largest ski resorts in North America, a place where a family of different level skiers can find something to enjoy.

‘Keep Squaw True’

In an edition of the resort’s Squaw Magazine dedicated to the expansion, Wirth repeatedly referred to John Muir, the naturalist who founded the Sierra Club.

The references irked members of the San Francisco-based nonprofit. “You invoke the legacy of John Muir as you pursue destruction of his beloved Sierra, and we are asking you to stop,” Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club, wrote in an email to Wirth earlier this year.

Mooers said the Muir references were Wirth’s attempt at “green-washing,” using environmentalism to promote development. Mooers objects to the size of the project, which would include a structure taller than any other building on the north side of Lake Tahoe. He notes that the county’s environmental review found it would have “significant and unavoidable” effects on scenery, noise and traffic.

“Squaw is an appropriate place for some development, but KSL has come in with something that is so out character with the Tahoe area,” Mooers said.

Sierra Watch has started a campaign against the project called “Keep Squaw True” and handed out bumper stickers and created a website with the slogan. The organization has also circulated a petition asking the county to reject the project.

 

Mooers and other critics have repeatedly criticized the plan for the mountain adventure center because of its size and its emphasis on indoor activities in a region known for outdoor fun. The center’s plans are in the conceptual stage, but among its possible activities are zip-lining, simulated sky diving and rock climbing.

“What he’s doing is a threat to the mountains that gave birth to the modern conservation movement,” Mooers said of Wirth. “Andy works for KSL, and his job is to expand the assets of the company.”

Sierra Watch and several other environmental organizations sent a letter to Wirth last year, asking him to withdraw his proposal to build a gondola next to Granite Chief Wilderness. Forestry officials unsuccessfully tried to buy the private land where the gondola would be built. The letter said the wilderness designation by Congress in 1984 was a “clear statement of its value to our nation; that we recognize that this land is special – and it should remain that way.”

The wilderness area is “near and dear to the people of this area,” said Joanne Roubique, district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, which has been asked by Squaw to approve the gondola. The agency is conducting an environmental review of the project, and a final decision, which will be made by the supervisor for the Tahoe National Forest, likely won’t come until sometime next year, she said.

‘I’m an environmentalist’

When protesters braved the cold in February to hold signs in Squaw Valley saying “Keep Squaw True” and other messages against the expansion proposal, Wirth showed up with a box of hot chocolate from Starbucks to help keep them warm.

Wirth, whose office contains framed quotations from Muir, calls himself an environmentalist, and said he has been working to close a coal power plant outside Reno. He said responsible land management was instilled in him at a young age. His grandfather, Conrad Wirth, was the longest-serving director of the National Park Service, having held the position for 13 years. His great-grandfather, Theodore, helped design the Minneapolis park system and was a leading figure in the country’s urban park movement.

Andy Wirth said he understands the resistance to the Squaw Valley expansion. As someone who spent half of his life in Steamboat Springs, he saw how fiercely residents want to protect mountain towns. However, Wirth said the rhetoric surrounding the development plan does not match the reality. For one thing, almost all of the development at Squaw would happen on what is now an asphalt parking lot, he said, not on undeveloped land.

Wirth said the Squaw development plan has been dramatically reduced in response to complaints from residents during the more than 300 community meetings the resort has held since announcing the project. The proposed adventure center, which he said is needed to attract offseason visitors and provide activities when winter weather does not allow skiing, has been slightly reduced in size.

Eric Poulsen, whose father co-founded Squaw Valley, said Wirth has endured a lot of misleading rhetoric, including the argument that the development plan is somehow out of line with Squaw’s origins. He said his father wanted a European-style village, as proposed by Wirth, and hoped to join Squaw with Alpine Meadows, although with a different form of transportation than a gondola.

Wirth and KSL “are going to put Squaw Valley back on the map,” said Poulsen, who acknowledged he will benefit financially from the resort’s growth, as he owns stock in KSL and property in Squaw Valley. “It’s very controversial in the community. I think a lot of people want to keep Squaw just the way it is.”

Wirth’s response to opponents has been as proactive as it was when he saved himself in the Lodi-area vineyard, said Holmes, the professional skier and adventure athlete sponsored by Squaw Valley. He convinced Wirth to start skydiving several years ago and was with him on that fateful day outside Lodi.

“I don’t envy his position and all the criticism and scrutiny he’s faced,” Holmes said. “But he rises to the task. There’s never a moment when Andy Wirth is not solution-oriented. Andy Wirth listens and adapts his plans as needed.”

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