Locals and Conservationists May Have to Make a Deal with the Devil to Save Squaw

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How to un-fuck Squaw Valley. (Click here to see why it’s fucked.)

By Andrew J. Pridgen

Squaw CEO Andy Wirth has become something of a sympathetic creature of late in that he has to continue to carry a party line that is completely out of step with the community, with the environment and with industry trends.

Wirth’s employer is currently stopping just short of putting Squaw on Craigslist like an old Playstation 2 with no working controllers—its final effort before they drag it to the curb with a cardboard sign that says “Free.” The ridiculous plans to build are a last-ditch effort to try to start to recoup the investment and at least a half-decade of running at a loss.

Should these cut-and-run plans for Squaw be approved, the project will be sold over time to developers. For its part, KSL is currently mobilizing all its resources to slam through the 3 a.m. Digiorno of mountain development plans. As a result, the project reads like a high school term paper written the morning of. The plan shows no scope, courage, or sensitivity to the environment it’s supposed to define and protect or the people that are supposed to live there. And if the whole thing feels familiar, its because it was probably downloaded from the internet to after a quick: Courtyard Marriott Fresno search. That is because, once more, KSL could give a fuck about that whole design-and-build part of it—they’ll be onto the next spot, most likely somewhere in Florida wetlands where pythons have temporarily taken over.

“They represent a nightmarish vision for the future of Tahoe,” Sierra Watch spokesman Tom Mooers wrote on April 15.

So what’s the answer?

Ecotourism, catch-phrase’y as it may seem, is the largest and fastest growing segment of travel—with eight billion ecotourist visits a year worldwide, according to the Center for Responsible Travel. Ecotourism is travel that minimizes negative impact on a location and seeks to preserve its natural resources.

It is not a fad.

If KSL wants a blueprint for Squaw (i.e. how to make money and at least appear responsible) they needn’t look further than Leo DiCaprio. Ten years ago, DiCaprio bought Blackadore Caye, 104 acres of unpopulated land off the coast of Belize that had been degraded from decades of overfishing and deforestation.

How is a neglected island 3,500 miles away similar to Squaw? In a lot of ways actually. From the Wayne Poulsen/Alex Cushing early days in the late ‘40s to the halcyon Olympic-hosting early ‘60s to the rip-it-and-go ‘80s and ‘90s, the words responsibility and Squaw go together Trump rallies and tolerance. Beyond the requisite clear cutting, sometimes of old-growth stands (see: 5,000 trees on Red Dog) and the complete obliteration of creeks, marshes and wetlands on the Valley floor (see: the big old gray slab that will someday be a water theme park), the choking and disproportionate stoppages of traffic and the dramatically upstaged granite peaks of Squaw from a miasma of hodge-podge building choices and strangely placed wires and towers have always marred one of California’s natural wonders.

But horribleness can be undone. DiCaprio, for instance, partnered with Paul Scialla, the chief of Delos, a New York City-based developer, to create an eco-conscious resort on the Caribbean coast. When it opens to guests in 2018, “Blackadore Caye, a Restorative Island” will combine luxury resort amenities with an eye to restore the island to its former vegetative- and fish- and reef-rich roots.

The first stop was to hire a team of scientists to study the area, its origins, and to try to figure out the puzzle of how to turn back the clock on hundreds of years of use while knowing people will still occupy it.

The solution(s) for the resort—set to open next year—include villas built atop a giant platform  that stretches over the water. Rebuilding reefs and fish shelters and growing indigenous marine grass on an island nursery to support a manatee conservation area. Native mangrove trees will be replanted, and, according to The New York Times, “a team of designers, scientists, engineers and landscape architects, some of whom have spent more than 18 months studying Blackadore Caye, will monitor the resort’s impact on its surroundings.”

See that? Designers, scientists, engineers, landscape architects—constantly monitoring—not a one-time scoping session; not some former government lackey consultant who is double dipping with his retirement. Real, unbiased, third-party biologists coming in and discovering and uncovering ways to restore, replenish and rejuvenate a jewel. And then staying on to make sure the job is done right and the work continues. When it comes to people, we are, for the first time, just starting to learn that the environment isn’t a one-time investment.

You can’t leave things like the environments on autopilot. And you can’t sell off a development in an environmentally sensitive area piece by piece and expect good things to happen.

Imagine for a moment a comprehensive plan then knocking out the Squaw parking lot and putting the creeks and marshes and native species back. Homes, commercial space, villas and chalets built on stilts or some kind of massive cantilever which would co-exist with the natural landscape and enable permanent restoration to occur. Some kind of native nursery to re-grow native plants as well as grow food to create a more sustainable four-season resort. Spaces for outdoor observation and recreation including intricate trail systems and sanctuaries with a focus on biodiversity to help restore and maintain some of California’s threatened plant and animal species. A state-of-the-art water catchment and solar system that could not only fuel the community but act as the stores for the next season’s winter. If observers in the Sierra know one thing, it’s that in 20 years the biggest question facing any mountain resort is: “How do we sustainably make enough snow to keep one white strip on the mountains for at least two months so people can still pretend to ski.”

Heady positions, yes. But the answers are out there. The science is out there. The systems are out there. Yes, even the money is out there. Unfortunately, these solutions are not coming from current KSL leadership or their water theme park.

They’ll point to the bottom line. And for once, they’re right.

This is about the money, stupid.

So let’s talk about that for a second.

KSL is a private equity firm and it’s well established that they’re past their time-to-sell horizon on the Squaw/Alpine endeavor. There is no way they wanted to roll with Andy Wirth & co. and fight the greater Lake Tahoe Basin and its concerned eco-warrior surrogates for an entire U.S. Senate term-plus. The formula of most private equity firms is to see 3x their investment in 36 months. After all but abandoning hope that this could be done pushing Squaw/Alpine onto a bigger fish (See: Vail hasn’t bitten)—KSL has focused on selling off the new plans piecemeal to developers once approved. Think of it as a giant Jimmy John’s franchise opportunity in Olympic Valley.

KSL’s plan has been off-key all along. Squaw should have been absorbed three or more years ago. The blueprint for a mountain resort is evolving. And they haven’t evolved with it.

Meantime, places like the Yellowstone Club have been digging out of bankruptcy and setting a new path for the ski biz. In 2008, the resort was a shining example of how not to do business and a posterchild for mountain missteps in the Great Recession. That year, the private ski area defaulted on a $375 million loan. A mere six years later (the same amount of time KSL has owned Squaw), the Yellowstone Club is in full swing—selling more than $1 billion in real estate in under two years.

How did they turn it around?

Yellowstone Club, like KSL, is owned by a private equity firm. Sam Byrne and his Boston-based CrossHarbor Capital Partners bought the resort and its 2,200 skiable acres out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $115 million. Byrne then put up an extra $100 million to pay debt and finish capital projects.

Today, a condo starts at $4 million. Single-family homes can be had for $5 million, but most go for $10-plus. There are annual assessments estimated at $40,000 and a buy-in to the club—which includes 15 chairlifts, the 140,000-square-foot Warren Miller Lodge and an 18-hole championship golf course—will run you $300,000.

Is this a plan for Squaw? You bet it is.

KSL may not go bankrupt (or they might). But that’s a bet Basin residents don’t want to make. All parties know Squaw and its 3,600 skiable acres is in a unique position in that it’s both the most sought-after mountain property in the West and it has an opportunity to reinvent itself, including razing the view-blocking early ‘00s monstrosity that is the 285-unit Village, with private money.

Any plan to for a Sam Byrne-type to acquire Squaw—let’s put the price at $150 million—That’s $50 million to cover the 2010 purchase price, $50 million to cover appreciation and $50 million to compensate KSL for the alleged on-mountain ‘improvements’ they promised when they bought it—comes with a devil-you-know vs. devil-you-don’t know caveat. Squaw 2.0’s Gehry-inspired super mountain chalets that would float above the preserve landscape would also run in the $10-$20 million range. That ephemeral Silicon Valley and Hollywood money that has bypassed Tahoe for the last four decades, finally emerging in Martis Valley, would pour into Olympic Valley if it came with exclusive ownership of the most fabled terrain this side of Jackson Hole.

To placate the masses, a creative investor would insert a large caveat in the form of a non-profit that would grant access to the mountain to junior skiers being developed. The rest of us, well, make sure you make friends with someone rich, learn how to poach better…or get out of the way.

It sounds harsh, but is it really?

As much as it hurts to say, real money is going to have to usher in an era of real planning—and wash away the blight of KSL. And if people are going to invest that much in helping preserve and save Olympic Valley, you have to provide—at least the illusion—that its being done on a private preserve for the ultra-wealthy.

Because this country is 47 percent below the poverty line and all the money has migrated to the sliver of the multi-generational wealthy, skiing in concept and in practice—is now a sport for the few.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this bleak or stark for the everyman. Off-season easements would be built into the deal and public pass days would be voted in by the board. In the interim, you’ve made a pact with the top fifty percent of the one-percent that they’ll preserve the land the best they can. They may refer to it as their own, but the reality is it is land for future generations they are saving. After all, exclusivity way decreases traffic and footprint. Real conservationists should welcome a visionary plan for keeping the mountain and its surrounds pristine for future generations—by simply limiting access to it.

Grab the attention of Elon or Serj or Larry or Marissa or Sean P. or Tim C. or Mark Z. or Marc with a ‘c’ or Jack D. or some other feckless Bay Area cult leader—and guess what? Each to a person could pay to kick off this plan in petty cash. A plan that will provide a 10x return within the next half-decade and be a playground for innovation: driverless shuttles, skierless skis, snowless mountains and timeshareless resorts.

“The main focus is to do something that will change the world,” DiCaprio said of his Belize project. “I couldn’t have gone to Belize and built on an island and done something like this, if it weren’t for the idea that it could be groundbreaking in the environmental movement.”

Development at Squaw could be fucking mind-blowing, inspiring—the right thing at the right time and a template for the rest of California and the rest of the ski biz. A restoration project that includes people as the restorers. And it’s not impossible. It’s not something from the future. In fact, any plan short of this is disquietingly, screamingly, ballsily…from the past.

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