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Does the Squaw-Alpine Gondola Run through Wilderness?

The answer is not as clear as you may think
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In what has become a debate over the public versus private good, a group of five environmental organizations have banded together to oppose the route of the proposed gondola that would connect Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts. A portion of the gondola, plans for which were announced in April, would run through private property that is within the designated boundary of Granite Chief Wilderness. While no one disputes that Troy Caldwell, owner of the White Wolf property in Alpine Meadows, owns the land in question, opponents say it is morally wrong to build in a wilderness area even if that land remains in private hands.

“We understand that these cliffs, ridges, and forests on which the gondola would be built are privately owned. However, the inclusion of this land within the Granite Chief Wilderness Area boundary in 1984 is a clear statement of its value to our nation; that we recognize that this land is special — and should remain that way,” stated a July 28 open letter to Squaw Valley Ski Holdings CEO Andy Wirth and Caldwell, and signed by five nonprofits: Sierra Watch, Wilderness Watch, Sierra Club, California Wilderness Coalition, and the newly formed Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League.

The root of the issue can be traced back to the 1984 federal California Wilderness Act, which created the 19,0480-acre Granite Chief Wilderness in the Tahoe National Forest. Congress gave the U.S. Forest Service three years “to the maximum extent practicable” to purchase property from willing sellers who owned land in the designated wilderness areas. The act states: “Acquisition shall be only with the concurrence of the owner.”

However, Caldwell, who bought the 460 acres from Sierra Pacific Industries in 1989, was not a willing seller. Even then he had a dream of one day connecting Squaw and Alpine.

“The U.S. Forest Service asked us shortly after we purchased it if we wanted to sell,” Caldwell said. “We told them [the land is] too important to the community economy and the ski industry because of the connect. If the owner was not willing to sell, that was the end of that.”

Intent vs. Reality

It would have been the end of that except Congress never enacted legislation to change the map of Granite Chief Wilderness, which still shows the wilderness area extending approximately 60 acres into Caldwell’s property. The erroneous map was replicated in places like Trails Illustrated, perpetuating the false boundary line, say Caldwell and Wirth.

“I fully understand the spirit of the Wilderness Act, but in this case there is a yes or a no answer,” said Wirth. “It’s Troy’s land, no doubt.”

The U.S. Forest Service agrees.

“It is within the boundary technically but it’s not wilderness until it becomes National Forest system land,” said Joanne Roubique, district ranger for the Tahoe National Forest. “[Caldwell’s property] is not National Forest system land and it’s not being managed as wilderness … There are no special rules that can dictate what happens on private land near wilderness.”

Nevertheless, opponents of the gondola route — which would be built 100 to 200 feet east of Caldwell’s property line within the designated Granite Chief Wilderness — say that although Caldwell owns the land, Congress meant for that land to become wilderness, and therefore that objective should be honored.

“It was the intent of Congress that that land be set aside for wilderness for all generations,” said Isaac Silverman, Sierra Watch’s attorney. “Troy was able to frustrate that intent by not selling. It’s a moral question of what was Congress’ intent.”

Silverman said the issue is also a question of values.

“What do we value more? Is that land more valuable as part of a wilderness area or [owned by] an individual and ski resort?” he asked.

The Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League, which was formed in June to protect the wilderness area from commercial development, says the answer to this question is clear — the land was intended as wilderness and as such deserves protection, and is no place for a gondola.

“Private land ownership [of this area] is not in the national interest,” said Daniel Heagerty, one of the founders of the new organization whose family has owned a house in Alpine Meadows since 1963. “Troy has plenty of other land; in my opinion he’s selfish. Our hope is the Forest Service will look at it as a broader public interest issue. We don’t let people burn tires in their backyard; it impacts the whole neighborhood.”

The GCWPL, which so far has 115 fans on Facebook, planned to launch a crowdfunding campaign at the end of July to raise $30,000 to pay for a legal team and technical research.

This is not the first time Heagerty has opposed Caldwell’s plans. From 2001 to 2004, Heagerty and his brother spearheaded a lawsuit against Placer County for issuing Caldwell a permit to build a private chairlift on his property. The lawsuit was dismissed on a procedural issue.

Wirth and Caldwell said they have done everything they can to assure that the 2-mile long gondola, which will run approximately 4,150 feet through Caldwell’s property, will have as minimal an impact as possible on the adjacent Granite Chief Wilderness. They have pushed it as far from the wilderness boundary line as feasibly possible, will build the towers as low to the ground as possible, won’t build any roads for construction, and won’t operate the gondola in the summer.

“We will be very light on the land during the construction phase,” Wirth said. “From the primary view corridors looking east you won’t be able to see the gondola. You will have to go out of your way to see the towers and lines when you are in the Five Lakes region.”

Caldwell and Wirth say that the top danger to Granite Chief Wilderness is not the gondola, but rather it’s the overuse of the Five Lakes Trail. The trail runs through Caldwell’s property and is the second most popular trail in Northern California, according to Caldwell.

“We are loving Five Lakes to death,” said Wirth. “If your intent is really to protect Granite Chief Wilderness, we could work together to protect it. Of the top 100 things threatening the area, the gondola is not even close.”

Wirth and Caldwell have held meetings with the Bear Creek and Juniper Ridge homeowners associations in Alpine to try and clear up any misunderstandings about the wilderness boundary line, although Caldwell is a bit mystified at all this sudden attention to his property line.

“Until all this took place no one cared where the line went,” he said.

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December 13, 2018