The operator of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows on Wednesday will formally announce plans to link the two North Lake Tahoe ski resorts with a base-to-base gondola starting with the 2019-20 season, a proposal that faces significant opposition from environmental advocates.
The newly named “California Express” gondola would allow skiers and snowboarders to take advantage of different terrain and amenities on both mountains without having to drive or take a bus between them. But the project must first survive an environmental review by Placer County and the U.S. Forest Service.
The gondola would shave up to 40 minutes or so for skiers, creating a 13-16-minute ride from the base of one resort to the other, according to the plan. Some 37 lift towers would transport passengers the length of the roughly 13,000-foot line.
The gondola-connected resort would become the largest ski area in California with 6,000 acres of skiable terrain, according to Andy Wirth, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. He said a “truckload” of skiers are excited about having easy access to the wide open bowls of Alpine Meadows and legendary runs of Squaw Valley.
To make that happen, gondola cars would cross the popular Five Lakes Trail, which leads to the federally protected Granite Chief Wilderness area, according to early drafts of the plan first proposed in 2015. The gondola route would travel across a “bulge” of land that was once envisioned as part of the protected area but never acquired by the federal government.
That land is part of a 460-acre private ski area called White Wolf Mountain, owned by skier-turned-developer Troy Caldwell, that separates Squaw and Alpine.
If built along the current route, the gondola “would mar some of the aesthetics of the Five Lakes,” said Dan Heagerty, director of the Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League, a group he formed around the gondola issue.
The original gondola alignment would cross a ridge of steep granite face, adding man-made obstructions to the view.
“That is the payoff on the Five Lakes Trail. You come around a bend and there is a 1,000-foot granite wall,” said Heagerty, who splits time between a home in Marin County and a longtime family cabin near Alpine Meadows. “It’s basically sacred ground. You just don’t run into these kinds of places in the Sierra.”
He said he’s been hiking the Five Lakes Trail for 50 years.
“I’ve made it real clear that we’ll push back if they keep that alignment,” he said.
Environmentalists and those who want to preserve the region’s natural state are wary of Squaw Valley’s plans after fighting two other significant developments proposed by the resort. In September, Squaw Valley announced plans to build a year-round, gravity-powered “roller coaster” ride. That’s on top of a proposal approved by Placer County in 2016 to add as many as 850 residential units with a new hotel, retail space, restaurants and bars. It would also have a “Mountain Adventure Center,” an indoor and outdoor recreation facility.
Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch, which has challenged Squaw’s development plans, said public officials should heed the intent of the 1984 congressional action protecting the Granite Chief Wilderness, despite the fact that the Forest Service never acquired the nearby bulge area.
“I’d like to think there is a route that would not have as egregious an impact on the environment,” Mooers said. “Hopefully, we can encourage the applicant to pursue a better route.”
As envisioned, the eight-passenger gondola cabins would transport up to 1,400 people per hour. The gondola line would allow users to disembark at one of two mid-mountain stations and ski or board down. The gondola will offer a significant times savings for users, said Liesl Hepburn, a spokeswoman for the resort. Using the existing shuttle takes anywhere from 24 to 50 minutes, when the walk to and from the bus stop, wait for the bus and the 20 minute bus ride are included.
Wirth said the resort is committed to protecting the environment. He said the gondola will protect critical habitat, avoid crossing the wilderness boundary, reduce traffic between resorts and minimize the visual impact by limiting the number and height of towers.
He also said resort operators will reduce the impact by not building a service road during construction, instead using helicopters to position equipment. He said Squaw Valley is committed to shutting down the gondola in the summer.
Wirth added that Granite Chief and the Five Lakes Trail is already overused by hikers in the summer. He said he’s pushed for steps to lessen the impact since 2011.
“We are loving that precious wilderness area to death,” said Wirth, who noted that his father worked for the Forest Service.
The next step in the process is for Placer County and the Forest Service to release and produce an environmental study, simultaneously addressing federal and state requirements. That report is expected to be released in the spring. The public would then have 45 days to offer more input.
The Forest Service has heard the concerns about the gondola crossing land envisioned by Congress to be part of the wilderness area. But the agency doesn’t have authority to protect land that was never acquired or protected, according to Eli Ilano, forest supervisor for the Tahoe National Forest. The Forest Service can’t use eminent domain to forcibly take the land.
“We have no jurisdiction on that private land,” Ilano said.
Ilano said the agency is working with an environmental consulting firm not only to study the applicant’s preferred route, but also to look at alternatives that might satisfy concerns raised earlier in the process.
“We are spending a lot of time trying to find solutions that meet everyone’s interests,” Ilano said. “There may be a way to meet what everybody wants in a project here.”