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

Mission

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.

Approach

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

Outcomes

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.

Results

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.

Support

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:

 

Support the Sierra Nevada during our 2020 Summer Match!

There’s no better place to get into nature – and get away from it all – than the Sierra.

Let’s keep it that way.  Let’s not lose our great outdoors to indoor waterparks, our Tahoe time to traffic, our night sky to light pollution.

Click here to support Sierra Watch and our work to Save Martis Valley and Keep Squaw True.

And: every contribution – to $50,000 – will be matched; you can double your love for our mountains!

Tahoe traffic, tahoe development, Sierra Watch, Keep Squaw True, Save Martis Valley, Martis Valley

Great Time to Give to the Great Outdoors – Summer Match Announced!

These days we need our mountains more than ever. 

Maybe you’re lucky enough to be in the Sierra right now. But, even if you can’t currently access the trails or go jump in the lake, just knowing that they are there, ready and waiting for your next adventure, can provide real solace in challenging times.

Our job here at Sierra Watch is to defend those priceless mountain experiences – for you, your family, and for generations to come.

And you can help.

One of your fellow Sierra Watch supporters will match every contribution, up to a total of $50,000. 

We’re inspired by his commitment and hope you are, too.

Click here to support Sierra Watch and our work to Save Martis Valley and Keep Squaw True:

Tahoe City, Keep Squaw True, Gaffney, Game of GNAR

Protecting the Sierra for future generations!

Squaw Valley & Keep Squaw True: More than Just a Name

Update 10/19/2020: Sierra Watch Renames Campaign to Tahoe Truckee True 

For the most part, when we hear Squaw Valley, we think of the place – the meadows and mountains.  Some of California’s best ski terrain and the community that has built itself around the resort’s famous slopes. But increasingly now when we hear Squaw Valley, we also hear the name as a derogatory relic of an unjust past.

The term “Squaw” has an undeniably dark history – one of pain, misogyny, and racism.  A tainted transplant from the Algonquian language of Eastern North America, the term was artificially affixed to this western alpine valley and the people who lived here.  It did not come from the language of the Washoe, the native tribe of Squaw/Olympic Valley.  The name was applied when westward-bound travelers arrived and saw only women and children in the meadow as most of the men were away hunting.  The newcomers didn’t ask what the valley was called already; they decreed a word from their own experience.

Since then, the story of the Washoe people is one of tragedy and resilience in the face of conquest and oppression.  (To learn more about that history and the current lives of the Washoe, we recommend: “Washoe Tribal History,” a booklet by the Washoe Cultural Resources Office of the Washoe Native Tribe of Nevada and California, for the US Forest Service and Washoe Tribe of California & Nevada’s official website).

More than 150 years since the valley was labeled “Squaw”, there is now a growing, shared effort to step back and consider the meaning – the multiple meanings – of the name of one of our favorite places.

It’s an issue Sierra Watch has considered internally, and discussed with the local Washoe tribe, over the last nine years of our work to Keep Squaw True.  The conclusion we’ve reached so far is that we cannot do justice to our mission, to protect the timeless natural resources of the valley and the Tahoe Sierra, without using its widely understood place name.

History, however, is fluid; and times change. 

We understand that, these days, if you refer to the place as Squaw Valley, you are almost certainly not trying to offend or diminish anyone.  But it doesn’t take much historical perspective – or just human empathy – to realize that just because something is not offensive to you doesn’t mean it’s not offensive to someone else.  And that perspective deserves particular respect when it’s held by ancestors or, in this case, by the people who called the place home long before current residents arrived.

Again: our mission and our commitment is to defend the place from reckless development, to ensure that the values that pre-date the first prospectors – and will outlast us all – are not lost to short-term greed.

So, for now, we will continue to refer to the place as Squaw Valley, as we further our commitment to Keep Squaw True.

But we look forward to the day when: not only have we defeated the misguided attempt to destroy the values of the valley with endless highrises and an indoor waterpark but, also, when everyone can talk about the place with the respect and admiration it deserves. 

A respect for all who have come before us in a place that has been protected – kept true – for all those yet to come.

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.

The Movie to Keep Squaw True now on YouTube & Smart TV apps!

You’ve seen Tiger King on Netflix. You’ve refreshed your Facebook page 632 times today. Now it’s time to stream The Movie to Keep Squaw True on YouTube!

It’s not quite lions in Oklahoma. 

But it does tell the riveting story of how private equity hucksters are trying to build the world’s tallest indoor waterslide in Tahoe’s Squaw Valley. And how the conservation group Sierra Watch and thousands of volunteers are standing up to protect our mountain values.

Robb Gaffney, Scott Gaffney, Matchstick Productions, Squaw Valley

Pictured: Movie Directors, Robb & Scott Gaffney

If watching on a computer screen isn’t your thing, you can use YouTube to stream the movie on most Smart TV apps, including Apple TV and Roku. 

There’s no better way to kill another hour of quarantine!

Here’s to your health. And here’s to our mountains – waiting patiently for us to return.

KT-22, Squaw Valley, April 2020

Pictured: KT-22 at Squaw Valley after this weekend’s storms

Movie to Keep Squaw True YouTube

Wildlife Returns to Squaw Valley

In the absence of vacationing visitors, reports of unusual wildlife sightings abound in Squaw Valley.

Multiple news sources are reporting that Sierra dolphins are returning to their natural habitat with this photo of them seen frolicking in the indoor waterpark in Tahoe’s Squaw Valley.

"Squaw Valley Wildlife", "Alterra Mountain Co", "Coronavirus Tahoe"

Pictured: Squaw Valley this week

To get the real facts about Alterra Mountain Co.’s proposed development for Squaw Valley, visit: https://www.sierrawatch.org/keep-squaw-true/

Reaching out as the Mountains Abide

We just wanted to reach out and connect with our conservation community.

We’re doing what we can to continue the work of Sierra Watch – Saving Martis Valley and Keeping Squaw True – as much as our isolation allows. But we miss seeing you all in person, whether at our own events, on a chairlift, or out on the trails.

One social distancing tip we can offer: The Movie to Keep Squaw True is streaming online, and you can binge watch as many times as you like!

Squaw Valley, Fresh Snow, Tahoe Coronavirus, Squaw COVID-19

Pictured: Squaw Valley today

In the meantime, our mountains abide, under a blanket of snow.  And will be there for us when we emerge.  

North Tahoe SnowFest’s 4th Annual Wing Eating Contest, benefiting Keep Squaw True

Join Sierra Watch on Sunday, March 1st, for Fat Cat Bar & Grill’s Fourth Annual North Tahoe SnowFest Hot Wing Eating Contest, benefiting our work to Keep Squaw True! Event runs from 3pm to 5pm.

keep squaw true on parade

Pictured: “This is Tahoe’s measurement of the good times people have had,” Robb Gaffney, marching at past SnowFest Parade

So come join us as we watch the fastest eaters from Tahoe and beyond test their mettle against each other and Fat Cat’s spicy wings to become North Tahoe SnowFest 2020’s wing eating champion. We’ll be there raffling off Keep Squaw True gear, as well as a signed copy  the poster for G.N.A.R. The Movie.

Join us from 3 to 5pm! Fat Cat will be offering 30% off Bloody Marys and their signature wings to all spectators.

Sierra Watch staff will also be on hand with campaign updates.

EVENT RULES:

The wing eating competition is open to all amateur eaters 18 years or older who are in good health. Registration is $30 to compete & is currently open — just drop by Fat Cat Bar & Grill in Tahoe City, day-of or in advance to register, open everyday for lunch and dinner!

The Contest
1. Each competitor will start with exactly thirty wings covered with sauce.
2. The contest will last exactly three (3) minutes.
3. The competitors will consume their allotted wings and place the eaten chicken wing bone back into the wing receptacle.
4. If a competitor finishes their allotted thirty wings before the contest is complete, they will be given an additional ten wings to consume.
5. Once the contest is complete, each competitor’s wing receptacle will be taken to be weighed by a Judge.
6. The winner will be determined by the total weight of wing meat eaten, measured by an official contest scale in pounds and ounces by the Executive Judge. In the event of a tie between competitors, there will be a 60 second “run off” to determine the winner.

North Tahoe SnowFest Wing Eating Champion Jeff Stoike

Pictured: Past North Tahoe SnowFest wing eating champion, Jeff Stoike

See you there!

 

“Maximum Potential Development” vs. Tahoe Mountain Values – Moonshine Ink covers Sierra Watch’s legal appeal over Squaw Valley

This month’s edition of Truckee’s Moonshine Ink provides an in-depth update on the back-and-forth over Squaw Valley in the Court of Appeals.

Would-be developer Alterra Mountain Company is arguing for what they call “maximum potential development.”

Sierra Watch is standing up for our shared mountain values – and state law.

And you can read it here:

 

moonshine ink

SQUAW’S FUTURE, IN BRIEFS

Sierra Watch’s second appeal against Alterra development proposal

By Becca Loux | Moonshine Ink

January 9, 2019

A contentious months-long written debate has finally concluded between Placer County, its board of supervisors, and Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows versus local nonprofit Sierra Watch over development plans put forth by the resort.

The “conversation” consists of legal briefings that have gone back and forth during Sierra Watch’s second appeal of Placer County’s decision to approve development plans, and this time the mediator of that conversation is California’s Third Appellate District Court.

The campaign against the village development plans, dubbed the “Keep Squaw True” movement, and the legal battle led by Sierra Watch has been ongoing since Squaw Alpine (now owned by ski resort giant Alterra) first announced the project in 2011. On Nov. 15, 2016, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved the project, after which Sierra Watch appealed the decision, filing complaints to the county’s superior court on two separate counts. 2018 saw rulings in favor of the 93.3-acre proposal in both cases, on the heels of years of meetings, hundreds of public comments, and many signed petitions.

The first of the two challenges to Squaw’s development by Sierra Watch was mostly on the grounds of violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Among other arguments, the group contends that increased traffic resulting from the project would threaten the clarity of Lake Tahoe, a natural region that is directly mentioned in CEQA itself (which calls the gem of the Sierra of “statewide, regional, or area-wide significance”).

Squaw Valley development, Keep Squaw True

SKY VIEW: Squaw Valley mixes natural beauty with man-made recreational features. Photo by Riley Bathurst

Sierra Watch also had previously filed a suit on the grounds that the Placer County board’s decision was announced without proper consideration of the Brown Act, a piece of transparency legislation sometimes nicknamed California’s “good government act.”

After the superior court ruled in favor of Squaw, Sierra Watch appealed again, as plaintiff and appellant, taking both counts to the state of California, and naming Placer County and its Board of Supervisors as well as developer Squaw Valley LLC as the defendants. The two parties are currently waiting for word that the court is ready to hear oral arguments and make a ruling, with no slated timeline on either decision.

“The length of the process is challenging,” Sierra Watch Executive Director Tom Mooers told Moonshine Ink. “Although [the waiting] also means that, hey, there’s another year where there’s no indoor water park in Squaw Valley. That’s good news in itself.”

For Ron Cohen, new COO and president of Squaw Alpine, the notion of fighting against specifics like indoor water parks or developing in Shirley Canyon (two aspects to the plan that have faced community backlash, encouraged by Sierra Watch’s messaging) distracts from the fact that the approved aspects represent maximum potential development, not a locked-in plan.

“What came out of that process was a set of entitlements,” Cohen explained, which “essentially recommend the largest extent to which as an owner you could legally have your property developed; they don’t require you to develop to that extent, they authorize you to develop.”

Cohen, who ran his own hospitality business in Yosemite and worked for Alterra-owned Mammoth Mountain resort, each for eight years, started his position at Squaw Alpine in April 2018 (in addition to a short legal stint working directly for Alterra). After Alterra formed and gained ownership of Squaw Alpine from former proprietary company KSL, they didn’t significantly alter the existing development plans. Cohen thinks it would be foolish to “go back” on those maximum permissions, because he fully intends to continue a process of community feedback to make sure they end up building “what’s right” for the mountain, within the set of parameters the county has allowed.

The approved plans include, on the village parcel, no more than 1,493 new residential units, an equipment yard, 9 acres of parking structures, and approximately 274,000 square feet for an entertainment park. The east parcel, also included within the approvals, could include dormitory-style employee housing, a parking structure, and 20,000 square feet of commercial space.

The future of Squaw Valley lies with the state’s court of appeals. As the case gets prepped to be heard, a long-form written “conversation” went back and forth between the parties. The following are excerpts from the briefs by the opposing legal teams, which highlight what’s at stake.

On Environmental Grounds: Briefs From Lawsuit No. 1

Originally, Placer County’s decision that Squaw Alpine’s development plans meet CEQA requirements was based on a rejection of the notion that Squaw Valley, situated just outside the official borders of the Tahoe Basin, has a significant impact on Lake Tahoe clarity. Sierra Watch’s main initial argument was based on the grand lake, with Mooers telling Moonshine that “this development threatens everything we love about Squaw Valley and the Tahoe Sierra.”

Sierra Watch’s appeal to this decision began with their appellant opening brief, which focused on what they argue was the county’s failure to address concerns laid out in CEQA primarily about Tahoe clarity and preservation, fire evacuation safety, and traffic increase. The opening brief reads, in part:

Despite the public outcry … the Board of Supervisors … voted to approve it and certify the defective EIR. Tellingly, the Supervisor representing Squaw Valley and the Tahoe area voted to deny the Project and reject the EIR.

… Located just outside the Lake Tahoe Basin, the development would add nearly 24,000 vehicle-miles traveled (“VMT”) per day to the Basin. This is more than 100 times the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency’s (“TRPA”) threshold of significance (200 VMT). All that traffic would add to the pollution and nutrients that are steadily depriving Lake Tahoe of its clarity.

… In Squaw Valley, there is only one way out — Squaw Valley Road. If the proposed high-rises and indoor waterpark are built and occupied, it could take an estimated 10 hours and 40 minutes just to exit the Valley on the busiest weekends.

Placer and Squaw’s response focuses on backing up the initial findings of the EIR as well as working to refute what their team deems as the “appellant’s hyperbolic adverbs and adjectives [that] distort the record.”

In part, here is the opposition response from the Placer and Squaw Alpine camp:

Most development will occur on a paved parking lot. … Over 36 acres of open space — compared to 20 acres under the SVGPLUO [originally adopted development standards] — is preserved.… The Project is located miles outside the Tahoe Basin … Its sole impact is that some visitors will — like anyone in the region — visit the Tahoe Basin.

In response to visual encroachment and mass of scale concerns, the brief also reminded the court that the project’s scale has been significantly reduced; for example, it states that the developer team “steadily reduced the Project from 3,187 bedrooms to the approved 1,493 bedrooms.”

As for the fire safety issues, Squaw took issue with Sierra Watch’s assessment that utilizing the new development as a “shelter-in-place” solution, a system of wildfire or other disaster relief involving seeking refuge where one is, isn’t realistic:

Appellant scoffs at shelter-in-place as “cryptic” and ineffective, but cites no expert evidence supporting this view. … In fact, shelter-in-place at the Village has long been part of SVFD’s emergency planning.

Then, Sierra Watch’s final rebuttal on the lawsuit challenging the validity of the EIR and the project’s ability to meet CEQA requirements ends the exchange swinging. Its opening states:

The opposition brief … cannot credibly explain the glaring omissions in the Environmental Impact Report (“EIR”). So Respondents engage in diversionary tactics. They misuse evidence in the administrative record, setting forth voluminous record citations that, upon examination, have little or no relevance to appellant’s actual claims.

Substantively, Sierra Watch’s final reply brief focuses much of its efforts on the Lake Tahoe clarity and preservation argument; in fact, a third of the organization’s 78-page document focuses on the lake:

As a factual matter, it is undisputed that the Project would generate 1,353 car trips and 23,842 vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) in a single day to the Tahoe Basin. As appellant explained, scientists agree that such vehicle travel results in the deposition of pollutants and finely-crushed road sediment into Lake Tahoe, threatening its water quality and clarity. Respondents do not contest this science.

On fire, the brief states,

Respondents attempt to downplay the project’s fire risk, claiming it is not as bad as what the designation as a “very high fire hazard severity zone … suggests.”

Squaw Valley development, Shirley Canyon, Keep Squaw True, Alterra Mountain Company, KSL Capital Partners

SHIRLEY CANYON, a popular hiking spot in the summer, may see development at its trailhead. Under the current permissions (which are being appealed by the Sierra Watch to the state courts), this rendering shows the scale possible. Image courtesy Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows

Brown v. Transparency: Briefs From Lawsuit No. 2

The second appeal Sierra Watch filed questions the process: The nonprofit is claiming that there were violations of the Brown Act, passed in 1953, which is meant to ensure public involvement in government decision-making.

Specifically, the Brown Act requires that any governing body “post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting,” and that key documents must be made “available for public inspection.”

In Placer County’s original public comment period for the Squaw development, then-attorney general Kamala Harris submitted a 15-page statement alleging that the county’s EIR wasn’t sufficient. Then days before the planning commission voted 4-2 on Aug. 11, 2016 to recommend the project’s approval to the board of supervisors, her office retracted the opinion, causing concern of a deal from Sierra Watch and others. (See Two Major Development Projects, One Planning Commision, Two Very Different Votes and Squaw’s Future Decided for context about the state’s involvement in the 2016 Placer decision).

Mooers alleges that before the November 2016 hearings by the Placer County Board of Supervisors “a last-minute deal … (was) cut with the opposition, the state attorney general and with the developer, KSL at the time, and sprung … on the public in a way that violated California’s good government law.”

Mooers explained that the Brown Act requires decision-making bodies “to operate in the sunshine,” he said, by making any documents available to them also accessible to the public.

Sierra Watch’s opening brief on this suit claims,

The county failed to alert the public that the Board would consider approving, in conjunction with the Project, an eleventh-hour deal concerning an issue of great public interest that County staff had hastily negotiated in secret with the project applicant … and the Office of the California Attorney General.

Mooers told Moonshine Ink the board kept relevant documents at the time in a “file cabinet in a locked office after-hours the night before the hearing,” which he doesn’t consider to be sufficiently transparent via the Brown Act. “They stood up in court saying that that was sharing with the public even though the public didn’t know about it and had no access to it,” Mooers continued.

Cohen countered, upholding the court’s decision by explaining to Moonshine that “there is no evidence to support the Sierra Watch’s allegations. The Brown Act [suit] isn’t really about the Brown Act; [it’s] about trying to find a way to block the development.”

Cohen’s legal team, in their response brief, refutes Sierra Watch’s claim of a “‘deal’ with the Attorney General to avoid litigation … there was no need to inform the public of such a nonexistent deal,” and goes on to allege that relevant documents were posted for the public 72 hours in advance of the 2016 hearing.

So, What Now?

In the end, Cohen doesn’t see as much conflict between his and Mooers’ priorities as the legal battle would have you believe.

“What you build ultimately needs to reflect what will work for the place, for the market, for the skiers, for the community. If you don’t get that mix right, the fact that you got it entitled isn’t going to make it successful,” he told Moonshine Ink. Any specific project will have to go through the approval process, and Cohen has expressed interest in seeking ample community feedback before committing to any part of the plan.

Cohen said he’s certain that one thing they need at the resort is more hotel rooms, which he says is currently an underserved element. Yet, “we won’t build something until we’ve had a very thorough discussion with our people and we’ve got a really good idea of what our people want,” Cohen said.

Mooers focuses his own fight on the long haul, rather than the day-to-day or even year-to-year of legal battles and regulatory development blocking strategies. Wading through the long bureaucratic process of suits and appeals, public comment, and building campaign momentum year-after-year, Mooers sees a light at the end of his fight’s tunnel. “We haven’t lost Squaw Valley to irresponsible development. But if we were to lose or give up then it’s truly over and it’s over forever,” Mooers told Moonshine.