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The Long View of the Squaw-Alpine Gondola

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By DANIEL HEAGERTY

The proposed Squaw-Alpine gondola would cross the boundary of a congressionally designated national wilderness area. The boundary line was drawn based on extensive reviews and deliberations, and can only be redrawn by Congress. The boundary near Five Lakes in Alpine Meadows includes private lands — as do other areas in Granite Chief Wilderness — because Congress intended those lands to be purchased for the benefit of the public and future generations.

The Granite Chief Wilderness Area was established in 1984 because it is a particularly unique and special land, not to be exploited or diminished. The Wilderness Act clearly states its intention regarding land protection: “…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

My uncle built one of the earlier cabins in Squaw Valley, and I started skiing there in the mid-1950s. My grandfather built the lodge for the Olympics. My father built our cabin in 1963 in Alpine Meadows. I’ve been hiking the Five Lakes Trail for 50 years and, like many, hold certain places up there as sacred.

Five Lakes has come to be possibly the most popular hike in the entire Tahoe Basin with an estimated 30,000 hikers a year, in large part because it’s a healthy hike, graciously rewarding the hiker with that which cannot be bought: silence, calm, and unfettered beauty, an increasingly rare commodity around Tahoe.

Many people think the Five Lakes Trail is there because Troy Caldwell, the private landowner, grants that access to the public. But the trail has a longstanding and irrevocable federal easement, in place long before Caldwell bought that parcel. The trail was originally a sheep trail, used to move sheep between summer pastures. The U.S. Forest Service has done a wonderful job keeping the trail low key and retaining its cultural value. The trail’s steepness, lack of rails, and sparse use of steps strikes an admirable balance of environmental protection and user experience. A gondola running overhead and in full view for much of the hike would greatly diminish those public values.

The proposed gondola would also be forever visible from many locations inside the wilderness, including Five Lake’s shorelines. The industrial humming and grinding of operations would penetrate into lands intended to be free from man’s noise and clamor. Any provisions for offloading passengers near the wilderness would desecrate the Five Lakes ecosystem. There could be up to 1,400 people an hour on the gondola. Given the climate models showing warmer years and shorter and shorter ski seasons, I believe gondola operations would soon span the four seasons, despite Squaw’s claims.

Why bring permanent harm to Five Lakes and the Granite Chief Wilderness? Wilderness by design holds a higher protection value than our National Parks. The public must be relentless in the protection of our wilderness, as these areas will be the greatest gift of nature we can give to future generations. Let us hold to that bigger vision of a place of peace and unfettered beauty, rich with inspiration and gratitude, safe with its sacredness.

To get involved, visit protectgranitechief.wordpress.com or Protect Granite Chief’s Facebook page.  

~ Daniel Heagerty is the director of the Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League. He has a long career working across the western states on public trust issues such as wilderness, biological conservation, water resources, and climate adaptation.

 
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The Opinion Page is your place to spout off. This section contains letters to the editor and longer My Shot pieces. Also, the Spout features two bimonthly perspectives — In the Past, delving into Tahoe Truckee history, and In the Moment, an artistic musing of a moment today.

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October 12, 2017