A proposed gondola project between Sierra ski resorts is facing criticism for its location in a designated wilderness area. But the area is not under federal control.The man who owns it favors the gondola and is building a ski resort of his own.
The proposed gondola project would be 2.4 miles long. About a quarter of that would cross land Congress has designated as part of the Granite Chief Designated Wilderness Area.
But, the government doesn't own the land where the gondola will go. Troy Caldwell does. He says he and Squaw Valley have been in talks, off-and-on for about five years about using his property to connect Squaw and Alpine Meadows.
"It was pretty darn important to the ski industry to keep that thing. So, we decided it was best kept in our hands in that respect."
Tom Mooers is with the conservation group, Sierra Watch and contends the land should be protected.
"The boundary for the designation of wilderness is not a point of contention," Mooers says. "It's been made quite clear and was actually signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. It's possible to have land designated as wilderness that is still in private hands."
Caldwell says he bought 460 acres -including the 60 acres of designated wilderness- from the Southern Pacific Land Company in 1989. He says he leases 70 acres to Squaw Valley for a price and has granted an easement to the US Forest Service.
"We are the entrance basically to the Five Lakes Basin, to the Five Lakes Trail. We have an easement with the Forest Service that we've given those guys," Caldwell says. "I guess we are the steward to the gateway to the wilderness in a sense. About 50,000 people a year use that trail inside of there."
Caldwell says he bought the property with the idea of building a bed and breakfast. But, when he couldn't subdivide the property, he decided to begin building a ski resort. He says many millions of dollars later, he has completed construction on all of the chairlift towers -about 600 feet away from the proposed gondola project.
Of the 25,274 acres in the Granite Chief Designated Wilderness, 149 acres are privately-owned. Two parcels total 66 acres on the Alpine Meadows/Squaw Valley side, and there are 83 acres on the northwest side.
Joanne Roubique is with the U.S. Forest Service. She says a designated wilderness area that is owned by the government has no roads, cell phone towers, or mechanized equipment.
"If the piece where the gondola is proposed was national forest," Roubique says, "we would not be able to approve a gondola in that location."
But, that's a big "if."
"The area that's on his property that's within the Congressional boundary for the Granite Chief Wilderness is still private land and therefore it's not within our jurisdiction to manage as wilderness," says Roubique.
The gondola project must pass an environmental review by the Forest Service and Placer County before it can proceed. Public comment will be a part of those reports.
Squaw Valley says the project will eliminate about a quarter of the vehicle traffic between it and Alpine Meadows.
Caldwell says he hopes to submit plans to the county for his ski resort, which he calls White Wolf, by the end of the year.