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Mergers and Acquisitions and Equity – Oh My!

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Forbes calls it the “biggest deal in modern ski resort history”: Squaw owner KSL teams up with Aspen to buy Intrawest and, then, Mammoth.
So what does it all mean?

For many of us, it might mean having a monster season pass with a bucket list of mountains: Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Mammoth … A mid-season road trip to Aspen, Colorado, doesn’t sound half bad either.

Skiers could also benefit if Aspen Skiing Company can teach KSL a thing or two regarding mountain operations and respecting the identity and culture that define these great ski areas.

What about for Tahoe? For the campaign to Keep Squaw True?

Most of all, the change of ownership is a reminder that, unlike the timeless values of Tahoe, holding title to one of our ski resorts is a temporary condition. And it’s further proof that ownership of ski resorts has shifted from the hands of the founders who built them increasingly into the portfolios of the masters of private equity.

Their job is to maximize the value of the mountains. Not the value you might understand — measured in powder turns or stars in the night sky — of the mountains as a place. Or even the values of resort founders like the Poulsens, Cushings, or McCoys. Private equity can only count the financial value of the mountains as an asset.

And it’s easy enough to understand where they are coming from.

It’s their job to ensure that investors, whether wealthy individuals or teachers’ pension funds, are realizing the highest return feasible. It would be irresponsible, and a breach of their contractual obligations, for the people who run KSL to pivot back to their investors and report that they will not be pursuing the maximum speculative value of their real estate holdings — because they want to protect the stoke on Palisades or had a religious experience in Granite Chief Wilderness.

It’s our job to ensure that the job they do — that relentless pursuit of profit — does not diminish what we value.

The good news is that thousands of us have already committed to the work to Keep Squaw True — and that California has a set of laws that make our job possible.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that decisions made on potential development like KSL’s Squaw Valley proposals are based on a thorough assessment of what those decisions — and the ensuing development — would mean.

It’s a way to ensure we’re measuring not only the speculative financial value of real estate, but are also considering other values of place – like clean air, wildlife habitat, and the clarity of Lake Tahoe.

If you are one of the hundreds of people who showed up for Placer County’s public hearings on KSL’s Squaw development last year, you watched as the county clearly considered the financial value of KSL’s development scheme and, on the other hand, openly dismissed the deeper values of those of us who love Tahoe.

This is more than an irresponsible betrayal of places like Squaw Valley and the Tahoe Sierra. When it’s based on gross mischaracterizations of the development’s true impacts, it is also a violation of state law.

That’s why we’ve taken those approvals to court. And why the fight to Keep Squaw True has only just begun — no matter which private equity firm holds title.

So, what does it all mean?

If you ski, you might end up with an awesome season pass tucked in your coat pocket — beckoning you to new mountains.

If you invest in KSL Capital Partners, you might see some changes in your portfolio.

But if what you value most about Squaw and the Tahoe Sierra is something that can’t be calculated in a financial spreadsheet or included in a season pass, this change of title probably doesn’t mean all that much.

Because private equity firms come and go. The mountains abide.

~ Tom Mooers has served 16 years as the founding executive director of Sierra Watch, the creator organization of the Keep Squaw True campaign. Before that he worked for the League to Save Lake Tahoe. And a really long time ago, his first job was washing dishes at Lake House Pizza in Tahoe City. He lives in Grass Valley with his exuberant family of six.

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May 10, 2018