Challenge of the Big Trees
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Chapter Nine:
New Directions and a Second Century


Mineral King Enters The Park

Nowhere during the 1970s did the public play a larger role in decision making in the southern Sierra than in Mineral King. The temporary court injunction issued in July 1969 had blocked implementation of the Forest Service/Disney development plan for the basin for three full years before the U. S. Supreme Court finally addressed the Sierra Club's lawsuit. In an April 1972 decision, the Court rejected the suit, which challenged the legality of the entire resort development scheme, on the grounds that the Sierra Club had not established that it was suffering direct harm as a result of the Forest Service's actions. The Court also, however, made it obvious that the club could refile the suit with certain modifications and gain a serious hearing. [13] Almost before the pro-resort faction could savor this victory, however, a new obstacle to development arose when the California State Assembly voted to remove the proposed new road to Mineral King from the state highway system. In June, the Sierra Club filed an amended suit, and in August the State Senate joined the Assembly in pulling back the state commitment for highway access funding to the mountain valley. Public opposition to Mineral King development had begun to increase as the Sierra Club carried its campaign against the project to a population in the midst of an environmental awakening unparalleled in American history. By the early 1970s the battle for Mineral King was no longer a one-sided affair in which a few environmentalists attempted to stave off development of a popular resort. Taking advantage of the increasing urban sensitivity to wilderness preservation that was sweeping across California, the Sierra Club had become a formidable adversary.

Increasingly, with the legal and political issues at a stalemate, the two sides fought in the court of public opinion. In May 1972, Walt Disney Productions took out a full page advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle defending its development plans as both environmentally sensitive and fully legal. To give the project a better environmental image, Disney Productions assembled a prestigious advisory committee for the project. Among its members were former National Park Service Director Horace Albright, former Sequoia and Kings Canyon Superintendent Eivind Scoyen, and former Sierra Club President Bestor Robinson. [14] Leading the opposition was the Mineral King Task Force of the Sierra Club, which used its newsletter, The Optimist, to spread the word. Among the task force's tactics were "Save Mineral King" t-shirts, public work shops, and even a march on Disneyland itself, staged April 14, 1973.

Slowly, the situation shifted to the advantage of the project's opponents. In November 1974, newcomer John Krebs defeated Tulare County's long-time U.S. Representative, Bob Mathias, who had consistently supported the project. Additional momentum faded during 1973 and 1974, while the Forest Service, in a effort to comply with NEPA requirements, prepared a massive Draft Environmental Statement for the Mineral King project. As completed in December 1974 by Sasaki, Walker Associates, the same company that prepared the 1974 Development Concept Plan for Giant Forest, the 300-page document opened entire new areas for discussion, argument, and public influence. [15] In early 1976, after sifting through an enormous amount of partisan public comment, the Forest Service issued a Final Environmental Statement for the project. Significantly, in this document the Forest Service scaled down the size of the proposed development, reducing proposed winter use by 20 percent and proposed summer use by 40 percent. In the report the Forest Service listed five development alternatives, ranging from no change in the situation to development for 20,000 skiers a day. As its preferred alternative the agency chose the latter, with its highest possible level of the development. [16]

Even as the Forest Service modified its development plans in a effort to salvage the project, however, the tide began to turn against the agency. In March 1976, Tulare County Representative John Krebs announced that he would introduce a bill to transfer the disputed area to Sequoia National Park. Previous bills to effect this transfer had already been introduced, but never before with local political support. Responding to those earlier bills, the National Park Service had quietly undertaken an analysis of the suitability of the area for addition to the park. In March 1976, the NPS concluded that:

The outstanding natural resources of the Mineral King valley argue for its inclusion in the National Park System, and there is still a considerable segment of public opinion that believes that Mineral King should be given this status. None of the former problems now appear to be insurmountable. . . . [17]

Photo omitted from online edition
In 1969 Walt Disney Productions unveiled their proposed ski village for Mineral King Valley. As many as 10,000 skiers daily could have used the facility. (Copyright Walt Disney Productions.)

With the election of President Jimmy Carter in November 1976, and the reelection of John Krebs, the battle for Mineral King entered its final phase. At the same time, criticism of the Forest Service began to take its toll on the organization. In February 1977, Representative Krebs angrily challenged the chief of the Forest Service to explain the presence of two Forest Service officials, apparently on official duty, at a pro-Mineral-King-development and anti-John Krebs political meeting. [18] In early January 1978, the Forest Service again scaled down the size of the proposed development, this time to 6,000 skiers and 4,000 daily summer visitors, but it was too late. Late in the same month, after a meeting of the White House Domestic Policy Council, the Carter Administration reversed the decade-long executive branch policy of support for the development, and announced that it would instead support addition of the 16,000-acre area to Sequoia National Park. [19] On November 10, 1978, President Carter signed the Omnibus Parks Bill sponsored by Representative Philip Burton of San Francisco. Among its many provisions was the addition of Mineral King to Sequoia National Park. To settle any remaining doubt about its intentions, the bill prohibited construction of any downhill skiing facilities in the area.

The thirteen-year battle for Mineral King, a battle between recreation developers who certainly perceived themselves as conservationists and the rapidly growing preservationist branch of the same historic tree, left deep scars. To Sequoia National Forest, the final outcome represented a public rejection of its basic management philosophies. After all, the agency had done nothing more in Mineral King than attempt to execute its long-standing multiple-use policies. To the Disney Company, the whole affair had been a public relations debacle, an effort which made enemies and squandered a good deal of the organization's public goodwill. To the people of Tulare County, many of whom saw opportunities for economic growth in the proposal, the death of the project marked yet another occasion in which "outsiders" decided the fate of local mountain resources. In November 1978, they soundly rejected John Krebs in his bid for a third term, selecting instead a conservative Republican who publicly announced his continued support for development of the area.

On the winning side of the Mineral King battle was the Sierra Club, which grew immensely in prestige and power during the years of the conflict, as well as the larger preservationist/national park public. Ultimately, it was this last group that resolved the issue, just as it resolved the contemporary planning efforts in Giant Forest and Kings Canyon. In Mineral King the Forest Service attempted to sell to the public a large, intensive recreational development at exactly the same time that such ideas were being soundly rejected by the public in the adjacent national parks. In is not surprising that, in the end, proposed development of Mineral King sold no better than the rejected options of enlarged facility development in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.

In the Omnibus Parks Act, Congress called not only for addition of Mineral King to Sequoia National Park but also for the preparation of a comprehensive management plan for the area within two years. Following now-familiar procedures, the NPS assembled a planning team and sought public opinion. Again, as had been the case at Cedar Grove, resolution came easily because only those who had supported national park status for the area chose to participate. The plan announced its intentions clearly enough: "The actions detailed in this plan are intended to maintain the current pattern, density, and level of public use—both in summer and in winter—and to retain the traditional character of Mineral King." [20]

As the 1980s began, one Mineral King issue remained only partially resolved, however. The 1978 legislation that transferred the area to the national park also allowed Forest Service recreational leases to continue. On these leases stood summer cabins, many of them occupied by extended families with multi-generation ties to Mineral King. The legislation authorized indefinite five-year renewals of cabin permits, but only to permittees of record at the time of the transfer. Eventually, the legislation implied, the cabins would all disappear. Thus, in a spirit of compromise, the 1978 act accepted into the national park yet another body of traditional users with a deeply personal, incompatible but traditional relationship with what were suddenly national park resources. As the first century ended, the fate of this interest group and its special privileges had not yet been resolved.


Challenge of the Big Trees
©1990, Sequoia Natural History Association
dilsaver-tweed/chap9c.htm — 12-Jul-2004