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A Mountainous Misstep

April 05, 2002

The town of Mammoth Lakes wants us to believe that 300,000 people arriving by passenger jet would not cause the funky but charming village to mushroom into a massive international resort amid the magnificent eastern Sierra landscape. In fact, the town's latest, flawed environmental study argues that the area ecology would improve because Southern Californians could fly to Mammoth rather than spend six or more hours on the road driving there.

Got it? Fewer cars on U.S. 395, less pollution. The problem is, Southern Californians may be reluctant to fly to Mammoth through Chicago or Dallas, which is where the planes--the Boeing 757s the town is eager to expand its little airport to accommodate--would originate. And by the way, Mammoth's argument for expanding the airport is that those planes are integral to a proposed $800-million makeover that developers hope will turn the town and ski area into another Aspen or Vail.

Intrawest, the ski area's Vancouver-based majority stockholder, is transforming the town and has an agreement with American Airlines to bring in an estimated 33,000 visitors during the first winter of expanded airport operation, with a potential of almost 10 times that in future years. But service cannot start until the town spends an estimated $29 million--to be provided by the Federal Aviation Administration--to lengthen by 1,200 feet and widen by 50 feet the single runway at Mammoth-Yosemite Airport.

The town has failed miserably in its contorted attempts to demonstrate that expanding the airport, about five miles away on a plateau 7,000 feet above sea level, can be done without significantly affecting the environment. The latest effort reiterates its earlier head-in-the-sand finding that there would be no major impact "directly, indirectly or cumulatively." The state attorney general's blunt retort: Do it again and do it right or we'll see you in court.

Sadly, the FAA also kissed off the environment, even while acknowledging that the jet service would spur tourism. Faced with legal threats, the agency decided to study the project more thoroughly. Its updated decision is expected soon.

The reality is that no one has done what needs to be done: to conduct a comprehensive examination of the combined effects of the air service and town growth on the region, including construction, now underway, of an entire village with $600,000 condos, a golf course and a gondola linking the town with a ski area that sits, in part, on public forest. The study needs to examine the alternative benefits of flying the planes into Bishop's airport, 40 miles to the south, 3,000 feet lower than Mammoth and not subject to winter weather as severe.

Mammoth Lakes is at the heart of a spectacular natural playground, a public asset that so far has escaped the hasty overdevelopment that has marred other gems, such as the Lake Tahoe basin. Mammoth town leaders have a responsibility to make certain that their quest for more visitors does not spoil the eastern Sierra for everyone.

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