There was a time when Squaw Valley and free skiing were synonymous. In the 90’s and early 00’s, Squaw took front and center stage with images of Shane McConkey, Rob Gaffney, and Kent Kreitler gracing the photo gallerys of publications like Powder Magazine, FREEZE, and Ski Magazine.
Today, that storied legacy is in danger as Squaw Valley and KSL Capital hope to build what would be the largest ski resort development in the history of Lake Tahoe. The development would include a 96′ foot tall waterpark bigger than a Wal-Mart, 10 story high-rise condos, and unprecedented traffic congestion in Olympic Valley.
Scott Gaffney, who normally avoids politics at all costs, feels the proposed development is way beyond the reasonable scope of commercial development and asks all snow sports enthusiasts– regardless of how or where they ride, to voice their opinion against the onslaught of greed that is currently threatening the Squaw Valley community.
*So in order to get a better view into the why behind Gaffney hates the proposed development– we sat down with the ski industry legend to get his thoughts on what’s currently happening in Olympic Valley.
Q + A : Scott Gaffney | Tahoe City Local, Film Maker At Matchstick Productions, Legendary Squaw Shredder
UN: KSL and Squaw locals have been fiercely opposed for the past few years. When did the animosity begin?
Gaffney: I started seeing some red flags a few years ago. The first red flag I saw was when some questionable stuff when down regarding leveraging some non-profits and athletes. Then, shortly into KSL’s reign, they tore the bronze bust of Alex Cushing (the founder of Squaw Valley) out of the tram building late one night and threw it in a dumpster. It was discovered by some people who then took it up to the Chammy and put it in the Loft Bar until they were ordered to get rid of it. That story definitely told me a little something about their respect—or lack thereof—for the history and culture of this place. Then locals moved to incorporate Olympic Valley in an effort to have at least some say in what was happening in their community, and KSL spent 800,000 squashing that incorporation movement– basically saying that we don’t want your opinions. That’s what got me involved politically and I can’t stand politics– They made me political.
UN: So they want to run at capacity, all the time?
Gaffney: Yeah, naturally, they see places like Whistler, which is packed to the hilt all year-round and that’s what they want to create. KSL keeps painting this picture that if Squaw doesn’t build this development, they will fail. What I would argue is that while places like Vail and Whistler are beautiful, they don’t have the same dramatic landscape at the bases of their mountains. Squaw is one of the most beautiful, dramatic, and easily-accessible valleys in the Sierra and would probably be considered a national park on the east coast. A place like Whistler also has more space that might allow for more growth. Squaw on the other hand is stuck in a tight box canyon.
UN: Is that “Return on Investment” attitude completely wrong?
Gaffney: I get it. It’s business. But when business comes at the expense of a community, that’s a real problem. I‘ll put it this way– this isn’t a division caused by the community. It’s the community reacting to a division created by this corporation. There were no problems before, skiers would pack the place when conditions were good, and Squaw was rad. That greed and exploitation caused the division.
UN: Who would you like to see get involved?
Gaffney: That’s a hard deal. Andy Wirth was smart enough to pay some of the most prominent athletes and while some are not happy about the development, they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them and that’s understandable. Skiers and snowboarders don’t make a ton of money. But to show how bad it is, one prominent athlete has told me he hardly even skis Squaw these days because it doesn’t feel like home anymore. The vibe has completely changed. Also, I’d like to see Protect Our Winters step up and help protect our valley– it may not be directly related to climate change, but they are ambassadors for conservation and preservation and it seems right in line with what they are about.
UN: Is there a rift growing amongst locals concerning the development?
Gaffney: There are some select locals who stand to make out very well financially, so some back it. But the majority of the money obviously ends up in the hands of outsiders. A rift is definitely there and the vibe is definitely at the lowest point I’ve ever seen. At the last community hearing, you had folks fearing the price of their second homes would go down if the proposal didn’t go through, while on the other side long-time locals are worried that their quality of life is about to be ruined. Which holds more weight?
UN: Point taken. Say your worst case scenario happens, what would be the biggest heartbreak?
Gaffney: It’s already happening. They’re sterilizing the whole experience. Some people who grew up skiing @Squaw are moving away from Tahoe and they’re the kinds of people who never wanted to live anywhere else. They’re moving away solely based on this corporation. This place grew up on the forefront of freeskiing and it’s always been about the skiing and now it’s turning into something totally different.
UN: Is this the biggest threat Olympic Valley faces in the future?
Gaffney: The way I look at it, the three greatest threats to the quality of life in Lake Tahoe are catastrophic forest fires, climate change, and major development and subsequent overcrowding. For the first, we’re at the mercy of nature. For number two, we can do our part, but it’s clearly a global issue. But for the third, with this development, all we have to do is say, “STOP!”
UN: Would a scaled down version would meet the Tahoe community’s wants and needs?
Gaffney: I think everyone understands that some development is going to happen. Most people in the #KeepSquawTrue movement are fine with some development. The problem is KSL wants to put in as many beds as the 3 largest casinos in South Lake Tahoe combined. That’s just way too big. Having 10 story buildings and 96′ foot tall waterpark in this setting just isn’t right. It’s urbanization in a place that doesn’t deserve to be urbanized.
UN: What would Shane think?
Gaffney: Sherry and I have talked about that. She‘s somewhat unsure, because Shane was always incredibly loyal to his sponsors but I think by this point, he would have been fed up. He had a strong environmental heart and wasn’t fond of growth at all costs.
UN: So what’s the next step for Tahoe locals who care about the community and don’t want to see this development happen?
Gaffney: They can write. Write to the Placer County Commission before Tuesday. Also, visit Sierra Watch and show up to the meeting on Tuesday. Basically, show our strength in numbers. Write, talk to your friends, and get involved in the fight to #KeepSquawTrue.
UN: Will you get a season pass this year?
Gaffney: Yeah. I’m going to keep getting one until I can’t stand this place anymore. I love this place too much and that’s one thing I want to make completely clear is that the people fighting for Squaw Valley absolutely love Squaw Valley. They just don’t like the direction the corporation is taking Squaw. And for me, this trend of turning ski areas into resorts is the worst thing happening in skiing today. It’s crushing the soul of skiing.