Scott Sonner, Associated Press
(AP) — A wilderness protection group has filed a lawsuit to try to block construction of a 2.2-mile long gondola that would pass through a national forest to connect the ski resort that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics with a neighboring Lake Tahoe ski resort.
The conservationists want a California judge to set aside Placer County's approval of the project they say would destroy critical habitat for a rare, federally protected frog and lead to irreversible loss of natural landscape on the edge of a high Sierra wilderness area.
"This will desecrate a wilderness sanctuary," said Huey Johnson, chairman and founder of the Resource Renewal Institute, a nonprofit organization that oversees the Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League.
The lawsuit said the county's approval in July was based on an environmental review that hid the cumulative impacts anticipated in conjunction with an associated housing development in the works.
"The project represents the first step in transforming this pristine area into one that is developed with roads, housing and considerable human infrastructure," said the lawsuit filed Aug. 22 in Placer County Superior Court.
The gondola with eight-passenger cars and 33 towers — some as high as 50-feet tall (15 meters) — would transport up to 1,400 people an hour on a 16-minute trip between the bases of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows northwest of Tahoe City, California. Squaw Valley hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics.
About 20% of the project, including five of the towers, would be located in the Tahoe National Forest. The county rejected earlier alternatives that potentially could have passed through the nearby Granite Chief Wilderness Area designated by Congress in 1983.
Ron Cohen, president of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, which owns both resorts, said the gondola route selected from four options is the most environmentally friendly because it is the farthest away from the wilderness boundary.
"A tremendous amount of research and study informed the approval of this project," he said, pointing to nearly 2,400 pages of studies and analysis in the environmental review.
"Public review and approval includes a combined 20-1 vote by two municipal advisory committees, the Planning Commission, and the Board of Supervisors, on top of the clear findings and approval of the Tahoe National Forest. Quite simply, this project has a broad and convincing mandate," he said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Cohen said the gondola will allow skiers to enjoy the two resorts' combined 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares) of terrain without having to drive between the two. Backers estimate it could reduce traffic by 100 vehicles a day along State Highway 89.
The lawsuit said the developers failed to consider a non-gondola alternative, including improving the existing shuttle system. It said the project will lead to considerable development within critical habitat designated for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and assumes that only occupied habitat needs to be protected, failing to disclose impacts to adjacent dispersal habitat.
The environmental review also "wrongly asserts" that the project is independent from the proposed White Wolf development, consisting of 38 residential units, a clubhouse, tennis courts and equestrian facilities.
"The project has been planned specifically so that property owners and guests of the development would be permitted exclusive private access" to the gondola at a tower at the mid-section, the lawsuit said.
The project won preliminary approval from the Forest Service earlier this year and is awaiting final approval.
Tahoe National Forest spokesman Joe Flannery said the wilderness league was among 12 organizations and individuals that objected to their draft record of decision. He told the Sierra Sun they intend to finish clarifying those objections in the next two weeks and release a final record of decision in November.
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