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Speaking Up to Protect Squaw Valley: What Would Muir Do?

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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 ( 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 (

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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Reader comments so far...

Kudos to Gaffney for sacking up and telling it the way he sees it. More people need to step up and speak up soon. I've lost some respect for some other Squaw Valley local heroes that seem to have jumped right onto KSL's ship. Thanks for being my hero today Robb.

Downhill skiing requires large capital investments. Corporations will make that investment but are also driven to maximize income. The "values" of the corporation boil down to making more money. Everything else is secondary. They will pay lip service to "environment", etc. and they are legally bound to follow regulations (or work to weaken them) but the bottom line (literally) is profit. When you have an area which is controlled by a corporation, you will have continuous development of anything which can make a buck. You can fight this and you should fight this when it is your home but it is a difficult battle. I do support anyone who attempts to control the growth of this corporate takeover of Squaw Valley.

Jamie Schectman
I very much appreciate Dr Gaffney's letter and challenge to the local community to speak up. Not coincidental, KSL has supported many of our area's awesome organizations such as High Fives, the Humane Society, the McConkey Foundation, Big Truck Brand, etc in an effort to quiet the opposition. It is my sincere hope that the community continues to speak up and express that a small scale city is not in our area's best interest".
Dan 7-11's picture

Dan 7-11
Robb, Thank you for a well stated op-ed about our current plight. This drama has been played out for two decades in many other ski towns and the result has been the same in every single place. From Idaho to Vermont every time a large corporate developer has created a "mountain living experience" they have created troubles for the local towns surrounding their "investment". I believe the book "Downhill Slide" predicted this nearly two decades ago and yet here we are repeating mistakes for the profit of a few. The biggest threat to Tahoe in my humble opinion are the following: 1. Loss of easy access to day skiing. Moving parking areas far from the lifts, creating an isolated shuttle dependent area for us locals makes showing up for a "few turns" before work much more difficult if not impossible. The removal of seasonal lockers and family areas for team parents is another such move that makes it harder to come and play for a few hours during those perfect mid-week days. 2. The further development of the valley, and the potential development of Homewood as well as growth at Northstar MAY increase skier visits BUT those visits do not leave the resort complex. The tourist dollars remain "On-Hill" and those of us who own small business's in Truckee and north shore suffer. Money spent at these resorts leaves our area and does nothing to help our local economy. The jobs created are increasingly lower wage and seasonal. The construction teams brought in are typically from out of area or out of state. When tourists visit a locally owned store that money goes right back into our system. I can honestly say that nearly every penny of profit at my store stays in Tahoe (either in the form of payroll, rents, purchases etc...). Can this be said for Squaw KSL? That money is filtered away .... meanwhile business rents increase due to the perception of "more traffic" and the huge human resource departments continue to job search from out side our area to fill positions. If improvements meant a new high speed from the base of Kangaroo to the summit of Estelle and a two lift interconnect from Headwall to Estelle then I would be umping up and down. However, I am left wondering why our town planners continue to approve projects that take money from the North Shore and directly siphon it to corporations with no interest in our well being. That said lets have an epic winter, because no matter what KSL does they cannot change the fun.

Thanks Dr Gaffney... I respect your courage and integrity for speaking candidly about the Squaw KSL Development. I've followed the project as much as I can and heard from both sides. One side coming from KSL representatives that I heard. Was "who are you to tell us what we can and can't do on private property" If this is really the view that KSL has then they need to rethink their strategy and Squaw must incorporate so there is a balance between the development. Incorporating and having a council of elected officials with voting power on development plans in the valley is democratic and right. KSL is a member of the community and its their responsibility as member of the community to develop within the approval of the community. Thats what makes a community as opposed to just a resort. I've worked in the construction and development industry for my entire career and I can assure that trying to steamroll opposition with an army of litigators and more respect to the bottom-line than the community it serves is a recipe for disaster. I worked for a developer that was pushed completely out of town because of the blatant disregard of the public opinion. KSL is walking the tight rope and needs to find balance and so far I am not overtly impressed with their actions and strategy. Read "home from nowhere" and discover that positive development can occur and be successful, so long as it engages the community and enhances the community, hold design charrettes that involve the public, listen to the concerns of the people and find consensus and compromise in the process. I am not anti development in fact in many ways I am pro development. However the process needs to have a more bottom lines than just dollars and cents. In the end neither side is going to get exactly what it wants, but if there is compromise and synergy between the different factions that exist, one can sleep at night knowing that the pendulum has not swung too far in one direction. If the strategy is to outspend and out litigate the opposition, that is wrong and I don't condone that approach. If KSL can step up to the plate and put forth a plan that the community can ralley behind; if they can collaborate with local business and expand their reach and not burn holes in their pockets...then have at it. If they are just going to take a page from the Vail playbook...we as a community need to step up and plant our feet firmly on the ground and draw the line and tell the KSL executives "this is the line and you will not cross it, and if and when you do, there will be consequences to your actions. Great piece takes credible members of the community like yourself to ralley the masses to wake up and know they have a voice and have a say and can be part of the process. Good luck to the squaw community and the surrounding communities this development will impact.

Great question but if applied should be applied region wide. I'm far less concerned with what the plans are of a private developer than I am with what the plans are of Caltrans and the road contracting industry. That industry has laid down firm stakes in this area and has plans for the indefinite future to stay and continue to metastisize. Their well of money is bottomless, unlike the private developing interests. To obsess over the development plans by private firms in places like Squaw and Northstar is to totally ignore the far far larger ugliness that has taken control of the entire area and effects every aspect of living here. How is ignoring it even possible? Don't any of you ever get out and about? From an aesthetic, environmental, recreational, and even commercial perspective, how could the plans of a group of private developers in places like Squaw Valley POSSIBLY be any worse than what the plans are of the road contracting industry? Don't you get it? These aren't projects that are ever supposed to be done. They have and will continue to transform this entire region into a massive road contracting factory. The 13 mile strip of highway 89, alone, has become a cash cow for that industry. Planning has deliberately avoided clustering projects so as to minimize the years of disruption and are designed to be done in succession... always another project waiting in the wings after one is finished. Can't just get them done at one time? Look at the six mile strip of highway between Truckee and Squaw. Less than one year after the pavement has dried on the last project, including a very dry winter, large swaths of pavement are already being repaired. How about that? Now that monster is even building in obsolescence and rate of decay. The only real future I see for the entire region, the one you can bank on, is a massive road contracting orgy and fretting over these relatively small private development projects is petty and ridiculous. Relatively. I do share those concerns. But way larger ugliness is has taken hold and I just don't see the point of losing sleep over things like gravity fed roller coasters. That's just so bloody petty when it comes to the larger picture.
Sam's picture

Dear Moonshineink, The Squaw Valley magazine on facebook again spouts vague - or evasive? - green green green "solutions" all conveniently forgetting to say 1100 condo owners (or more) can park their big shiny SUVs to the exclusion, it seems, of the locals, 2nd home owners and people holidaying around the lake. Please interview KSL and Montgomery on the Where is .. the How will you..., the Why's and the Why aren't you ...questions. How many free public parking spaces are there on the 70 acres? Where will locals go when the Cantina is bulldozed. Where is all the 'missing water' going, and questions everything. After all, if KSL has "the solution" it should make everyone happy.

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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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June 14, 2018