Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Eight:
Controlling Development: How Much Is Too Much?


The National Forests and Mineral King

The fundamental reassessment of policy and direction which occurred in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks during the 1960s and 1970s was paralleled by an equally dramatic change in the management of the surrounding national forests. This change, however, was not so much a change in policy or direction as a change in scale of operation and impact. As late as 1950 the Sequoia and Sierra national forests remained much as they had been when first set aside. Hydroelectric development had begun in some areas, and logging was increasing in its scale in the western portions of the two forests, but large expanses of the two reservations remained largely pristine except for low levels of trapping, sport hunting, and permitted grazing. South of Sequoia National Park and east of the main stem of the Kern River there stretched in 1950 an extensive de facto wilderness known as the Kern Plateau. This roadless area, more than 20 miles wide and 75 miles long, spanned the Sierran crest and included miles of subalpine meadowland and foxtail pine forest. Included in this region was the Horseshoe Meadow Plateau, a 10,000-foot-high basin dominating natural access to the southeast corner of Sequoia National Park. Another large tract of relatively pristine land, known to the Forest Service as the Hume Lake District, filled the triangular wedge of land between Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks along Generals Highway. A few roads entered this region, one extending as far as Horse Corral Meadow, only a few miles short of the boundary of the main portion of Kings Canyon National Park. The forests themselves, however, remained almost entirely uncut.

The two following decades changed all this. In the 1960s enormous tracts of previously little-used national forest were opened to roads and logging, much of it clearcutting. By the 1970s roads pierced the southern half of the Kern Plateau as well as the Horseshoe Meadow Plateau, where plans were underway to construct a large ski area on Trail Peak. To the north, the Hume Lake District produced several tens of millions of board feet annually. These changes represented no shift whatsoever in plans or philosophy. The development of the Sequoia and Sierra forests represented nothing more than the faithful execution of the goals the Forest Service had set for itself from the beginning. What had changed was the need for the forests' resources and the ability of the Forest Service to implement development schemes.

Perhaps the best example of the controversies that rocked national forest lands surrounding Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks occurred in Mineral King, the subalpine valley where Tom Fowler had lost his fortune back in 1880. In 1926 Mineral King had been omitted from Sequoia National Park even though the park was expanded that year in a way that left Mineral King jutting as a peninsula of national forest land into the national park. The river that flowed from the area went into the park, and the only access road, the same road miners had built in 1879, passed through the park. Mineral King had been left out of the park on purpose in 1926 because the Park Service perceived the area as having too many compromised land titles resulting from the never-successful mines and too many small development blemishes in the form of cabins, reservoirs, and pack stations. Recognizing the inseparable geographical relationship that tied the area to park lands, however, Congress did in 1926 declare the 16,000-acre Mineral King basin as the "Sequoia Game Refuge" under the jurisdiction of Sequoia National Forest.

For several decades after 1926 Mineral King slumbered under its game refuge status, enjoyed mostly by Tulare County residents who came up to the mountains during the summer to camp or to live in simple, rustic cabins. By the late 1940s a new group was prospecting in the area, however, and seeking not silver but a new form of Sierran wealth—ski terrain. Commercial downhill skiing had begun in the Sierra in the late 1930s, with the introduction of rope tows in several locations in the Donner-Tahoe region. By the beginning of the Second World War small ski resorts had been installed at Wolverton in Sequoia National Park and Badger Pass at Yosemite. After the war, as the same recreation boom that eventually required Mission 66 accelerated, a search began for appropriate terrain for large-scale commercial ski development. As early as 1946, the name of Mineral King Valley showed up on lists of potential ski areas.

In 1949 Sequoia National Forest, carrying out its perceived recreation mandate, called for bids for ski development in Mineral King. However, the sole bidder was unable to meet the Forest Service's conditions, so nothing happened. At that time, however, the Sierra Club supported the concept of skiing in Mineral King, a concept that seemed unlikely ever to lead to much more than a small lodge and a few lifts in the remote valley. Critical to the club's thoughts at that time was protection of the San Gorgonio Primitive Area in southern California. In 1949, Mineral King seemed far less important to the club than one of southern California s very limited subalpine areas.

Early in the 1960s the idea surfaced again, but this time with a much stronger interested party, Walt Disney and his entertainment company. For several years rumors quietly floated over the valley that Disney was interested in the area, a fact that became fully apparent only after his company purchased two tracts of private land in Mineral King Valley in January 1965. The following month the supervisor of Sequoia National Forest began openly to discuss reopening the area to ski development proposals. Finally, in late February, the Forest Service issued its call for development bids and the die was cast—the Mineral King area would be developed under the Forest Service's mandate for multiple use land management. Bids were due at the Sequoia National Forest headquarters no later than August 31, 1965. During the spring and summer of 1965, Mineral King was on many tongues and minds. In early May, with the large scale of the potential development becoming obvious, the Sierra Club reversed its 1949 position and announced its opposition to massive recreational development in the small subalpine valley. By the end of August six separate development bids were in Forest Service hands, with the most expansive proposal calling for over $40 million in facility investment.

map of proposed Mineral King Ski Resort
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

In January 1966, Walt Disney Productions, the top bidder, signed a three-year development contract with the Forest Service, allowing the company to begin planning for the Mineral King ski resort. By October 1967, the state of California had adopted a final route for the new state highway to Mineral King, a route that began in Three Rivers and crossed some ten miles of Sequoia National Park. This direct impact on the park was not well received by park officials, but as realists they felt that the project was already too big to stop. Ironically, Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall himself made his department's only significant resistance to the road development project, but by December 1967, he, too, had lapsed into defeated silence. Mineral King seemed on its way to development. According to the Disney proposal, Mineral King would soon have fourteen ski lifts, two large hotels, and a parking garage for 2,500 vehicles.

And yet, as the Park Service caved in, significant opposition came from another source—the Sierra Club, which filed suit against the proposed development on June 5, 1969. In the suit, which named both the Forest Service and Park Service as defendants, the club asserted that the two agencies had broken a number of federal statutes including the law that established the Sequoia National Game Refuge in 1926, the law that limited national forest recreation leases to eighty acres, and the laws that established and required the protection of Sequoia National Park. In July a federal judge issued a temporary injunction forbidding development until the issues were resolved, and a new decade-long chapter in the Mineral King story began. For the first time in a generation in the southern Sierra the Forest Service faced a major challenge to the implementation of its multiple-use mandate. As we will see, a protracted legal and political battle over Mineral King ensued, which preservationists finally won. [118]


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap8g.htm — 12-Jul-2004