By Scott Sonner
RENO — Conservationists at Lake Tahoe have agreed to drop a lawsuit challenging plans to build a 2.2-mile (3.5-kilometer) gondola connecting two ski resorts in exchange for neighboring land purchases and other wildlife protection measures.
The resorts, including one that hosted the 1960 Winter Olympics, and a wilderness protection group finalized the agreement this past week as part of the U.S. Forest Service’s final approval of the gondola that will skirt federally protected wilderness that is home to an endangered frog.
As part of the settlement with the Granite Chief Wilderness Protection League, Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows agreed to permanently protect 27 acres (11 hectares) of habitat for the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and contribute about $500,000 over the next decade toward land purchases and other protection efforts.
It also prohibits any road construction within the Tahoe National Forest’s neighboring Granite Chief Wilderness Area and dictates the gondola will operate only during the winter, shutting down each year no later than April 30.
Daniel Heagerty, the director of the league that had filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court challenging Placer County’s approval of the project in July, said they are “very pleased” with the deal.
“Squaw Alpine has made significant and greatly appreciated commitments to minimize wilderness impacts and invest in important endangered species conservation efforts,” he said.
The gondola with eight-passenger cars and 33 towers — some as high as 50 feet (15 meters) — would transport up to 1,400 people an hour on a 16-minute trip between the bases of the two resorts northwest of Tahoe City, California. Squaw Valley hosted the Winter Olympics.
Ron Cohen, president of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, which owns both resorts, 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 connecting Interstate 80 to Lake Tahoe near the Nevada-California line.
“We are very happy to have worked collaboratively with the League to address their concerns so that resources could be directed to environmentally beneficial purposes, rather than funding an extended lawsuit,” Cohen said.
“We are eager to get going on this game-changing transportation project,” he said. The resorts haven’t estimated how much the project will cost or when construction will begin.
Eli Ilano, Forest Service supervisor of the Tahoe National Forest, said in issuing the final environmental impact statement and record of decision that the project blueprint selected among four alternatives has the least anticipated environmental impact.
Under the selected alternative, the gondola would pass within 1,100 feet (335 meters) of the wilderness boundary line at its closet point. Other alternatives would have placed the gondola as close as 75 feet (23 meters) from the boundary, Ilano said.
“Visual impacts would be less severe than those originally proposed,” he said. He acknowledged that “some viewers may perceive visual impacts resulting from the selected alternative as significant.”
“While there would be minor, adverse impacts to wilderness resources … the impacts do not rise to the level of significant impacts based on my review of the analysis,” Ilano said. Impacts to the Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog and its critical habitat “would be adverse but less than significant.”
Patricia Schifferle, a member of the league’s board of directors, said the Granite Chief Wilderness Area was established by the original California Wilderness Act Congress passed 36 years ago.
She said the agreement calls for the resorts to provide roughly $450,000 to the Truckee Donner Land Trust over the next 10 years to purchase private lands bordering the wilderness that are subject to development and to contribute roughly $50,000 toward preservation and reintroduction of the frog.