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Speaking Up to Protect Squaw Valley: What Would Muir Do?
BY ROBB GAFFNEY
Not long after KSL purchased Squaw Valley Ski Corp. several years ago, I found myself dreaming about what was possible for this valley. What kind of new lifts would there be? What would the connection through White Wolf look like? Would we be able to start up a backcountry skiing program and take advantage of all the amazing terrain surrounding Squaw’s boundaries? I wasn’t alone. Many conversations I shared with local athletes and community members revolved around this lofty and ceiling-less experience of possibility. I would rarely run into someone who opposed my inspired state, mostly when I spoke excitedly about supporting the Olympic bid, which if successful would require massive regional developments.
Over the next couple years, I welcomed the much needed improvements to the mountain and base area, including the addition of the Big Blue chairlift and the elimination of the ticket portals so visitors could see the beautiful Funitel building. I found myself defending the decision to cut down the tree next to the KT sundeck in order to open up the area and create a large amphitheater. Remember the venue for the July 4, 2011 Big Head Todd concert?
But this buoyant honeymoon period was followed by something interesting. My enthusiasm about what could be gradually took a back seat, pushed out by thoughts of what was really going on here — the mechanisms of big business, the intricate strategies employed, and the bottom line. My eyes opened up to a very real threat facing our precious valley. Were we on the cusp of losing our unique character in this North American trend of homogenizing ski villages? Something truly valuable was at stake.
I kept these thoughts close to the vest. But as time rolled forward, they wouldn’t let go even if I was busy hiking, skinning up a mountain, or playing with my kids. I became irritated at times, thinking “Why can’t I just drop it and go along with a human process that’s been around for thousands of years — as populations grow, development happens.” Especially in cases like this, in which the developer reports they are committed to incorporating some green initiatives, I had better support them. Who knows who might be in the line up behind them?
This tactic worked for a short period of time. Letting go of the urge to express myself, I was relieved that I wasn’t going to get wedged into a difficult position with others or threaten my relationship with the mountain I love. Staying quiet would be better for me, my family, and any of my future ventures that would require that I not rock the boat in the business world.
But keeping quiet didn’t work. My conscience was insistent at pushing through. I was falling prey to a statement I often use in my psychiatric practice: “Life marches relentlessly forward until the truth be told.”
Typically, when I am caught in a dilemma such as this, I look to significant historical figures who I respect and who have made decisions and taken actions that placed them on the right side of history. In this case it was simple. I had to ask the question, “What would John Muir do?” Muir wouldn’t stay quiet. He would contemplate the issue after setting aside the influences of personal relationships, financial interests, and the pressures one might feel from ties to a rapidly advancing project. He would speak up and write about the need to protect the precious Sierra mountains and valleys, as well as how important it is for communities to hold onto the true outdoor experience.
I realize that in Squaw Valley’s situation, we are not in the position of fighting to set aside wilderness land, but we are in the position of fighting to protect the face of a valley that has been in creation for over 3 million years. We are fighting to maintain a true mountain and Sierra experience within the context of reasonable development. That is why I support the Friends of Squaw Valley and the leadership of Dr. Ed Heneveld (FriendsofSV.org). That is why I support Lizzy and Tom Day and other concerned citizens who sat tirelessly in front of the post office for three weeks gathering signatures to start a process of incorporation for Olympic Valley. That is why I support the continuing incorporation efforts as headed up by Peter Schweitzer and Dr. Fred Ilfeld so our valley can be in control of its own destiny (IncorporateOlympicValley.org).
With Squaw Valley and the mountain being such prime real estate, inevitably there will be successive waves of commercial interests in years and decades to come. As a Squaw, Tahoe, and Sierra community, it is imperative we support Squaw’s incorporation effort so that local residents can increase their power relative to these outside interests and effectively guide decisions regarding their valley.
So, I challenge all Tahoe community members, including local athletes of all ages, to let the world know what you think. Write letters. Get on social media. Do whatever it takes to let your position be known. And lend whatever financial support you can. At this stage of the game, keeping quiet infers that you are comfortable with the current plans. As development proposals continue to morph and evolve, I challenge you to set aside the influence of personal relationships, financial interests, and the pressures one might feel from ties to a rapidly advancing project, and then honestly ask yourself the following questions:
1) Will the skiing improve, including ease of day-skiing access and overall mountain experience?
2) Will the Squaw, Tahoe, and Sierra community maintain its unique character and its leadership position with respect to other ski resorts in North America?
3) Will future generations, even in 50 to 100 years, appreciate my position and will I be judged as sitting on the right side of history?
Answering these questions for myself, I find that I’m back in the land of inspiration and possibility. I can once again dream of what could be.
~ Robb Gaffney, M.D., psychiatrist is the author of “Squallywood: A Guide to Squaw’s Most Exposed Lines” and producer of “G.N.A.R, the Movie.”
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