OLYMPIC VALLEY -- Walled in by majestic snow-clad peaks, Squaw Valley USA long has been known as a mecca for downhill skiing.
Now a proposal by the ski area's new owner to build a year-round luxury resort with condos, cabins, an indoor water park and other amenities is stirring conflict and concern.
"All of us have gotten to know Squaw Valley for its beauty, its ruggedness, its outdoorsy feel," said Judy Carini, a longtime Squaw Valley resident. "What they are bringing is artificial. It's too much of a Disneyland feel."
Ski-area officials insist that it's just not so. Squaw Valley, they say, must change and grow to remain competitive and can do so without harming the environment or community.
"We are very much of, by and for the mountains," said Squaw Valley President Andy Wirth. "Virtually everything we are considering takes into account the aesthetics and function of the mountains."
There is one thing on which most agree: This time of year, the Tahoe area is skiing. Skiing is the magnet that brings people to the mountains, that fills hotel rooms and rings up sales at restaurants. And with casino gambling in decline, ski areas are more important than ever as an economic engine.
What's driving the debate at Squaw is its push to sell more than lift tickets, to strike new gold with off- season attractions, more ski-area-owned shops and restaurants and a lot more cabins, condos and hotel rooms.
Similar developments have transformed ski areas across Colorado and Utah and are the focus of a critical 2007 documentary: "Resorting to Madness: Taking Back our Mountain Communities."
"As more people seek a niche of their own in high mountain places, these delicate and singular landscapes are being sullied in what amounts to a modern-day gold rush," the film's narrator says.
Like a slow-motion wave, that trend arrived late in the Tahoe area, where a luxury ski village, Ritz-Carlton hotel and second homes have risen in recent years at and near the Northstar-at-Tahoe ski area.
That boom set off alarms among environmentalists. Now the Squaw proposal is adding to them.
"What are we saying about the future of the Sierra Nevada if what we choose are high-rise developments and indoor water parks?" said Tom Mooers, executive director of Sierra Watch, a Nevada City nonprofit that has helped protect land around Northstar.
Some are fine with it
But others believe the Squaw plan is the right fit, none more so than Wirth, whose grandfather directed the National Park Service from 1951 to 1964 and who is a fan of environmentalist legends Aldo Leopold and John Muir.
"Environmental stewardship is something we take very seriously," he said. "It's in the DNA of our staff, my executive team, everything we do here."
At Squaw, interest began to grow last year after the ski area's new owner -- Colorado-based KSL Capital Partners LLC -- unveiled plans to dramatically expand a village at the base of the mountain.
Company officials say they want to increase the number of lodging units from 290 to 1,290, build more retail space, a large indoor aquatic park and other amenities. If approved, the project -- which would rise from a sprawling parking lot at the base of the mountain -- is expected to take 10 to 15 years to complete.
"There are a lot of reasons to come to Squaw Valley in the wintertime. There are not a lot of reasons to come here in the summertime," said Chevis Hosea, vice president of development at Squaw Valley.
The plan is part of a suite of other improvements Wirth said are designed to restore Squaw Valley -- home of the 1960 Winter Olympics -- to its early splendor.