Our 2021 Resolution to Defend our Mountain Values

What a year!

As we finally put 2020 behind and drop into the New Year, let’s not forget to appreciate our shared perseverance. 

In isolation and anxiety and through tragedy, we’ve made it to 2021.

Emerald Bay, Tahoe Truckee True, resolution

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe – Abe Blair Gallery

Here at Sierra Watch, together, we have maintained our stalwart defense of our Tahoe values. We haven’t lost any ground to proposed subdivisions in Martis Valley, to roller coasters and indoor waterparks in Olympic Valley.

In fact we even secured some gains, celebrating the acquisition of land recently proposed for development but, now, protected forever.

Our shared commitment gives us a chance, in the year ahead, to resolve Tahoe’s two biggest development threats.

And that’s our resolution for 2021: to prove that, once again, we can work together to protect the places we love.

Onward into 2021!

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Reno Gazette-Journal: “North Tahoe property twice threatened by development now permanently protected”

Making sure you’ve seen the great news from North Lake Tahoe: 120 acres on Brockway Summit, recently threatened with development, now permanently protected!

This is how we do it – how we turn development threats into conservation opportunities.

In 2014, Mountainside Partners asked the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to approve 112 ridgeline houses for the property as part of its original Martis Valley West proposal. Sierra Watch, working with our conservation allies, stood up for our mountains and turned them back.

A year later, they returned with a project they called Brockway Campground, a sprawling resort with 550 campsites and commercial and additional commercial facilities. Once again, we stood with our allies to defend Tahoe, and the project stalled.

As of last week, both projects are moot; the land is protected.

Sierra Watch thanks our allies at the League To Save Lake Tahoe and Mountain Area Preservation – we couldn’t ask for better partners in conservation. And we applaud the U.S. Forest Service, the California Tahoe Conservancy, and Sierra Pacific Industries for seeing the deal through.

Happy Holidays indeed! And we’re already looking forward to the next year continuing our campaigns with Martis Valley West and in Squaw Valley!

Read the article here: https://www.rgj.com/story/news/2020/12/15/tahoe-basin-property-owner-development-protected-forest-service/3898662001/

For our mountains. More than ever.

It’s the time of year when we reach out and ask you to support Sierra Watch.

We make it easy – just click here to donate:

Sierra Watch Donate

And it’s important; these days, we need our mountains more than ever.

The good news is that there are no new subdivisions on the Martis Valley West property in North Tahoe; there is no indoor waterpark in Squaw Valley. But these threats are not going away – and new ones continue to emerge.

For twenty years, Sierra Watch has been proving that the best path forward is to work together to protect the places we love.

In a year when so much has gone wrong, this – our shared commitment to conservation – is going right. And we invite you to be a part of our success.

Donner Summit, Mount Rose Wilderness, Martis Valley

Pictured: From Donner Summit looking out toward Martis Valley, Mount Rose Wilderness, & Tahoe Rim


State of Sierra Watch 2020

Each fall we take stock of another year of Sierra Watch and the work we do to defend our mountains. Of course it’s tough to look back on 2020 – when it keeps bearing down on us like a freight train.

Throughout California, we’re suffering the realities of a changing climate – the ravages of wildfire and the threat of drought.

Sierra Nevada

Pictured: California, 2020

For months, smoke in our skies has reminded us: so much of the state is burning; and the rest of us are at risk.

Smoke Tahoe, Smokey Emerald Bay

Pictured: Emerald Bay, 2020

Changing weather patterns are impacting our Sierra snowpack and remaking our watersheds.

Squaw Creek, Squaw Valley, ALterra Mountain Company, Sierra Nevada Drought

Pictured: Squaw Creek, 2020

And then there’s Covid – locking us in our homes, cratering our economy, and inflicting us with the worst health crisis in a century.

Throughout it all, the mountains provide an antidote. Maybe you’ve been able to escape to the trails and the peaks, the streams and lakes – or even just to the simple solace of the smell of pine trees from your own porch.

Five Lakes Trail

Pictured: Five Lakes Trail, 2020

Just knowing that those experiences await us can provide at least some respite in tumultuous times. And, this year more than any, we’re reminded how important it is for us to protect those timeless opportunities from reckless development.

At Sierra Watch, throughout the year, our challenge has been clear: to not lose any of the ground we’ve been fighting for, and to maintain our strength for the times ahead.

Thanks to you – to the hundreds of supporters who have stayed with us and our work to Save Martis Valley and Keep Squaw True, we’re doing it. In a year when so much is going wrong, this – our shared commitment to conservation – is going right.

Alterra Mountain Company, Squaw Valley, Sierra Watch, Keep Squaw True

Pictured: Olympic Valley & Squaw Valley, 2020

There are no new subdivisions on the Martis Valley West property; there is no indoor waterpark in Squaw Valley.

These threats are not going away. But neither is Sierra Watch.

We look forward to the coming year, pivoting out of our quarantine, our recession, and our collective withdrawal and getting back into our communities, our work and, most of all, back into the adventures that await us in our mountains.

Thanks for helping make sure they’ll be ready when we are.

Sierra Watch: Our Mission & Role in Protecting the Sierra Nevada


Sierra Watch’s mission is to protect the Sierra Nevada by turning development threats into conservation victories.

Inspired by the Sierra’s mountain ridgelines, deep pine forests, rich meadows, and crystal clear waters, we provide innovative strategic leadership to defend the places we love.


Our own expertise includes campaign strategy, land use law, media relations, and grassroots organizing.  We leverage these skills with direct access to the best experts in public interest litigation, habitat conservation, and land-use planning.  And we follow through with integrity and discipline to ensure conservation success.

squaw valley community

Pictured: Keep Squaw True supporters at Tahoe City SnowFest


Our unique brand of strategic leadership secures conservation outcomes for Sierra landscapes.  The lasting result is preservation of irreplaceable Sierra values, permanently protected for generations to come.

Sierra Watch fills a critical need for targeted leadership in Sierra conservation.  Region-wide groups help shape broad policies for land use decision-making; Sierra Watch applies a focused approach to landscape-level development decisions.  Local grassroots groups often lack the full toolkit necessary to wage effective campaigns; Sierra Watch provides proven, disciplined direction for local efforts.  Land trusts can help broker real estate deals and shepherd land into permanent protection; Sierra Watch stands up to irresponsible development projects to protect land and communities.


For 20 years, Sierra Watch has built an impressive track record stopping damaging development proposals, generating funds to acquire lands of high value, and redirecting development to more appropriate areas. 

Our ongoing success is creating a lasting legacy of permanent protection in important places like Martis Valley and Donner Summit and of community involvement in development decision-making in Squaw Valley

Our campaigns develop and inspire local leadership at our project sites and beyond, ensuring that important, lasting land-use decisions are made for the right reasons, with the best information, and with the timeless values of the Sierra at heart.


Everything we do here at Sierra Watch – from legal briefs to bumper stickers – depends on the hundreds of individuals and families who stand with us to protect our favorite mountain places. Become a part of the proud history of conservation in the Sierra by supporting Sierra Watch’s mission:


New report: Lake Tahoe further losing its clarity

The UC Davis Environmental Research Center released its annual report on Lake Tahoe’s clarity yesterday, and the news is not good.

Emerald Bay, UC Davis, Keep Squaw True

Tahoe’s Emerald Bay/UC Davis

“Tahoe is suffering a staggering loss of clarity in our own generation,” says Tom Mooers of Sierra Watch.  “And if reckless developers in the Tahoe Sierra get their way, the news will go from bad to worse.”

Each year the center releases the results of its ongoing research.  Lake clarity is measured by dropping a Secchi disk, about the size of a dinner plate, and checking how deep it remains visible to the naked eye. 

According to UC Davis, scientists took 28 individual readings in 2019 and measured a decrease in clarity of nearly eight feet.  The average depth at which the disk could be seen was 62.7 feet.  In 1968, the depth was 102 feet – a stunning loss of clarity over the past five decades.

Lake Tahoe Clarity, Keep Tahoe Blue, Keep Squaw True, UC Davis

Pictured: Secchi Disc depth over time/UC Davis

Researchers point to the impacts of climate change as a growing contributor to the loss of lake clarity. 

Traffic is also an ongoing concern.  Cars in the Tahoe Basin kick up and produce the pollution that feeds nutrients and, in turn, cloud the lake.

Alterra Mountain Company’s proposed development in Squaw Valley, just outside the Tahoe Basin, would make both worse. 

Alterra’s highrise condos and massive indoor waterpark would pump more than 40,000 tons of carbon into our atmosphere every year.

And traffic generated from the new development would clog Tahoe’s roads, adding more than 1,300 cars – and their pollution – into the basin every day, threatening ongoing efforts to Keep Tahoe Blue.

Clearly, Tahoe deserves better. 

To learn more about Sierra Watch and to stream The Movie to Keep Squaw True, visit sierrawatch.org.

You can read more about the impacts of Squaw development on Tahoe traffic in our report: “Prepare to Stop: Tahoe Traffic and Squaw Valley Development

And to read the new report on lake clarity by UC Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center, visit https://tahoe.ucdavis.edu/secchi.

Stand with Sierra Watch – Every Month of the Year

Thanks for being a part of Sierra Watch and our ongoing work to defend our favorite mountain places.

Everything we do depends on the hundreds of individuals and families who stand with us to protect our Sierra. And we’re asking you to consider making a monthly contribution to our shared commitment.

Simply put, Sierra Watch focuses our love of places like Martis Valley, Donner Summit, and Squaw Valley into strategic, disciplined, and effective campaigns.

Keep Squaw True, Squaw Valley, KSL Capital Partners

It’s a little bit like David standing up to Goliath. Except that there is more than one Goliath – behemoths of private equity and speculative real estate, hell-bent on reckless development. 

But, most important, we are thousands of Davids. And, together, we are an unstoppable force for conservation.

You can invest in our shared effort by clicking here and making a monthly contribution to Sierra Watch:

One of our supporters tells me, “Every month, I get an email saying I’ve made another contribution of $20, and I feel like I’m doing my part.”

That kind of individual commitment is what it takes to stand up to the Goliaths – and defend our mountains.

Placer County Board of Supervisors, Squaw Valley, Alterra Mountain Company

So whether you are a first time donor, a monthly donor, or an annual donor, you’re a part of the proud history of conservation in the Sierra. And we appreciate your support.

As always, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly with any questions or comments. You can reach me by phone at (530) 265-2849 ext. 200 or by email at tmooers@sierrawatch.org.


Tom Mooers, Executive Director


State of Sierra Watch – 2019

Each fall we check in on another year of Sierra Watch and our work to protect our favorite places in the Sierra Nevada from irresponsible development.

So far, 2019 could be summarized by: one terrific movie, three legal briefs, more than 400 donors, and a massive challenge.

One Terrific Movie

The first thing I often ask people these days is, “Have you seen the movie?!?”

I mean The Movie to Keep Squaw True.

If your answer is, “No, not yet,” I suggest you set aside an hour, pop some popcorn, and stream it at https://www.sierrawatch.org/.

It tells the epic story of how we – together – are stopping reckless developers from turning one of our favorite Tahoe mountains into a Vegas-style amusement park.

If you’re a Squaw skier, it’s must-see streaming. If you love the Sierra – and Tahoe in particular, there’s something in it for you, too.

The film not only covers some of the action and characters unique to Squaw; it conveys deeper, timeless truths about our work and the values that – together – we stand up to defend.

Piedmont Theatre

The Movie to Keep Squaw True playing at Oakland’s Piedmont Theatre.

We took it on tour through the first half of 2019, firing up audiences in the Rockies and Reno, in Tahoe and Truckee, and down in Oakland and San Francisco. And it’s been an incredibly effective way to let people know about what’s at stake in Tahoe and recruit them into our growing movement to Keep Squaw True.

Three legal briefs

All that stands between both Martis Valley and Squaw Valley and irresponsible development is Sierra Watch – and our litigation to overturn illegal development approvals.

This year, we’ve completed our briefing in the Martis Valley West appeal and submitted our opening briefs in the Squaw Valley challenges.

Although not quite as entertaining as The Movie to Keep Squaw True, I actually recommend reading them. Turns out good lawyers are great writers. And our briefs in each case spell out clear, compelling arguments, backed by state law and court precedent.

For example, the two development proposals would add more than 7,000 new daily car trips to North Tahoe traffic. But Placer County officials largely ignored what all that development would mean to our roads – whether on any given weekend in the summer or during evacuation from a catastrophic wildfire – as well as downplaying the development’s impact on the lake itself.

You can find our case spelled out below.

Squaw Valley – California Environmental Quality Act Suit:

· July 3 – Sierra Watch Opening Brief
· Sep. 23 – Opposition Reply Brief
· Oct. 19 – Sierra Watch Reply Brief

Squaw Valley – Brown Act Suit:

· July 17 – Sierra Watch Opening Brief
· Sep. 27 – Opposition Reply Brief

Martis Valley West – CEQA Suit:

· Oct. 29, 2018 – Sierra Watch Opening Brief
· Feb. 21, 2019 – Opposition Opening Brief
· May 9, 2019 – Sierra Watch Reply Brief
· June 7, 2019 – Opposition Reply Brief

Our case for Tahoe, spelled out in black and white.

And if you’re really into this stuff, you can read the developers’ responses and see how they dodge and dissemble, pretending that pollution from more traffic in the Tahoe Basin is no threat to the lake. That, somehow, people stuck in their cars on Squaw Valley Road for ten hours trying to evacuate from a wildfire “would not be exposed to a significant risk.”

The hard work of legal research, brief-writing, and courtroom strategy might not be very cinematic. But it’s absolutely critical to our shared commitment to defend Martis, Squaw, and Tahoe.

And we’re confident that all that work will eventually compel developers and decision-makers to sit down to come up with responsible, collaborative planning for the future of our mountains.

415 Total Donors

Everything we do here at Sierra Watch – from legal briefs to bumper stickers – depends on the hundreds of individuals and families who stand with us to protect our favorite places.

Simply put, Sierra Watch combines our shared commitment to our mountains and shapes it into strategic, disciplined, and effective campaigns. 

Robb Gaffney, Scott Gaffney

The Gaffney Family – some of our Sierra Watch supporters.

So far this year, more than 400 of you have jumped in with donations. Each contribution both fuels and inspires our ongoing work, leveraging each individual donation into a shared investment. So: thank you!

A Massive Challenge

That combined commitment is what helps us overcome our biggest challenge: maintaining the capacity to sustain the effort.

In case you haven’t noticed, this stuff goes on for a long, long time. 

So the great challenge in 2019 – as it will be in the months and years ahead – is to keep at it. To slack off for one month is to lose forever.

We know it’s a lot to ask: years of commitment. At times when, especially in the absence of public hearings and news coverage, the proposed development projects are not so salient. 

And the conflict is draining. Most of us do not go to the mountains to seek conflict. But, when those mountains are at risk, the conflict finds us anyway. To turn from it would be to turn from the values that bring us to the mountains in the first place.

The mountains are calling, to turn a phrase, and we must keep going.

Here’s to a beautiful fall in our Sierra and plenty of snow this winter – and ongoing success in the months and years ahead!

 – Tom Mooers
   Executive Director
   Sierra Watch

Making our Case for Martis

Yesterday Sierra Watch and our conservation allies delivered our final brief to the California Third District Court of Appeals, the latest step in our challenge to the Martis Valley West project.

It’s a 127-page tour de force of law, reason, and justice – written by the best public interest land use attorneys in the state.  Click here to read the final brief: Martis Valley West Final Brief for California Court of Appeals

It spells out a rock solid case ofhttps://www.sierrawatch.org/making-our-case-for-martis/martis-valley-west-final-brief-for-california-court-of-appeals/ why development approvals for the Martis Valley West project were illegal. 

And it’s how – together – we stand up to defend Tahoe and our mountain values.

Tahoe Fire Danger

Pictured: Martis Valley from above

To review: developers filed their Martis Valley West proposal back in 2013, asking for entitlements to subdivide land on the Northstar side of Highway 267 along Brockway Summit for a new development including 760 houses on the northern rim of the Tahoe Basin.

Coupled with Alterra’s proposed development in Squaw Valley, it would add more than 7,000 new daily car trips to our Tahoe traffic mess.

Even though the Placer County Planning Commission recommended against it, the Board of Supervisors approved the project in fall of 2016.

Sierra Watch, along with the League to Save Lake Tahoe and Mountain Area Preservation, filed suit to overturn those approvals.

And we won.

Martis Valley Lake Tahoe

Pictured: Lake Tahoe from Martis Peak

Last year the trial court agreed with one of our key arguments, ruling that the County failed to assess the threat of catastrophic wildfire “especially in light of its high fire hazard status” and ordered Placer County to “vacate and set aside” its approvals.

This is an important victory that, at least temporarily, stopped the project from going forward.  But it was narrow in its findings, so we’ve appealed that ruling – to make it stronger. 

Yesterday’s brief details how the County failed to follow state law in assessing the development’s impacts on the clarity of Lake Tahoe, on climate change, on forest protection, and on wildfire danger.

Pointing out, for example, “The County did not take the fire issue seriously,” and its environmental review “is inexplicably indifferent to the public’s safety concerns in the event of a wildfire or other emergency.”

(For more on Tahoe development and wildfire danger, check out: Tahoe has an evacuation problem. Should new development be allowed in wildfire zones?)

Tahoe Fire Danger

Pictured: Smoke in the Tahoe Basin

It’s the last brief to be filed in this round; now we wait – the appellate court’s decision could take anywhere from two months to two years.

In the meantime, we’ll keep pursuing our longstanding commitment to Martis Valley and standing up for everything we love about Tahoe. 

Thanks for being part of our ongoing success.

Sierra Watch and Partners File Appeal on Martis Valley West

Last week Sierra Watch and our co-plaintiffs submitted the Opening Brief in our ongoing challenge to the Martis Valley West development proposal. 

The brief not only spells out why Placer County’s approval of the project was illegal, it also sticks up for a set of principles that are fundamental to the future of Tahoe and the Sierra. 

— Click here to read the brief —

Pictured: North Lake Tahoe from Martis

The Martis Valley West project, proposed for a “very high fire hazard zone” along Brockway Summit, would allow construction of new roads, commercial development, and 760 houses on the northern rim of the Tahoe Basin. 

It would add 3,985 daily car trips to our existing gridlock – many of which would travel into the Tahoe Basin and add pollutants that are robbing the lake of its famous clarity.

Even though Placer County’s own Planning Commission – as well as local residents and common sense – recommended against approval, the Board of Supervisors approved the project on October 11, 2016.

We challenged those approvals immediately, and, earlier this year, the trial court issued its ruling.  We won – but on narrow grounds.  By filing an appeal, we seek to strengthen our victory.

According to the 77-page document filed by Sierra Watch, League to Save Lake Tahoe, and Mountain Area Preservation in California’s Third District Court of Appeals last week, those approvals “violated two state laws designed to protect the environment: the California Environmental Quality Act (‘CEQA’) and the Timberland Productivity Act.”

Pictured: Sierra Watch at the Placer County Superior Court

Specifically, the County failed to meet the basic standards of state law in assessing the development’s impacts on: the clarity of Lake Tahoe, climate change, and public safety in the event of a wildfire and, also, in immediately rezoning land that had been given substantial tax breaks for a long-term commitment to remain forest.

Clarity of Lake Tahoe

The California Environmental Quality Act, the brief points out, designates the Tahoe Basin as an area of “Statewide, Regional, or Areawide Significance” and calls expressly for its protection.

Even the United States Supreme Court agrees “that Lake Tahoe is ‘uniquely beautiful,’ that President Clinton was right to call it a ‘national treasure that must be protected and preserved,’ and that Mark Twain aptly described the clarity of its waters as ‘not merely transparent, but dazzlingly, brilliantly so.’”

But the Martis Valley West proposal threatens our multi-generational effort to Keep Tahoe Blue.  As the brief reminds us, “It would send nearly 1,400 car trips per day into the Tahoe Basin, creating emissions and sediment that would significantly contribute to the degradation of the Lake’s famed clarity and the Basin’s fragile air quality.”

And, in approving the project, “the County refused even to describe this important element of the regional setting, much less adequately analyze the Project’s significant impacts on the Lake and Basin.”

That failure to consider regional impacts of a specific development, according to the brief, renders approvals “fatally defective.”

Public Safety/Wildfire

This week we are getting painful reminders of the growing risk of wildfire – and the importance to plan accordingly. And state law also requires decision-makers to assess the project’s impacts on public safety in general and wildfire danger in particular.

In the case of Martis Valley West, all those subdivisions, the brief reminds us, “would be built in a ‘Very High’ fire severity zone, increasing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the region and exposing residents, visitors, and fire-fighters to dangerous conditions.”

Yet, somehow, in approving the project, the County “summarily dismisses the Project’s emergency evacuation hazards as ‘insignificant.’”

In doing so, the County “plainly failed to comply with state law.”

Climate Change

California law codifies a state-wide commitment to consider climate impacts in development decision-making. 

The Martis Valley West project, the brief points out, “would emit roughly 30,000 metric tons of CO2 per year at buildout,” which would “vastly exceed the new significance threshold of 1,100 per year.”

Yet the County failed to assess how the Project could effectively mitigate its impacts and, because there is “no effective mitigation for this significant impact,” approvals “cannot stand.”

Timber Production Zoning

California enacted the Timberland Productivity Act in 1976 to “protect California’s forest resources and timberlands”. 

In order to safeguard vulnerable forests in “areas where second home subdivisions have been encroaching on valuable timberland,” the law confers generous property tax breaks on owners of timberland in exchange for placing their land into Timber Production Zones (TPZ), a designation which strictly confines the land’s use to timber production and related uses.

In exchange for lower taxes, the law prescribes a ten-year waiting period for any rezoning to become effective.

In the case of Martis Valley West, the County waived that waiting period and, as our brief contends, “violated the state Timberland Productivity Act (“Act”) by illegally rezoning protected forestland to accommodate the Project.”

Again, each one of the issues is reason enough to overturn Placer County’s approvals of the Martis Valley West project.  Most are issues that we will raise again in our Squaw Valley challenge.  And, together, they raise some of the most important questions facing Tahoe and the Sierra:

Should we consider the impacts one development project might have on the region’s natural resources?

Should planners and decision-makers consider the danger of catastrophic wildfire in approving subdivisions in California forests?

Can we apply state planning law to help reverse the catastrophic impacts of climate change?

And should landowners who get a tax break by committing to keeping land in forest be held accountable to that commitment?

Obviously we think the answers should be yesyesyes, and yes.  But we’ll have to be patient to see if the Court of Appeals agrees; their decision could take years.

In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact Sierra Watch Executive Director, Tom Mooers directly with any questions or comments.  You can reach him by phone at (530) 265-2849 ext. 200 or by email at tmooers@sierrawatch.org.