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Look Closely, Mammoth

October 26, 2002

The Federal Aviation Administration is putting money behind its absurd conclusion that expanding the Mammoth Lakes airport to handle Boeing 757 jets bringing in skiers from Chicago and Dallas wouldn't hurt the environment of the Eastern Sierra. The agency has allocated $20 million to the town of Mammoth Lakes to begin work on the expansion project.

State Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer is challenging the airport expansion in U.S. district court, arguing that it "threatens significant growth-inducing impacts on an ecologically fragile and unique region of California" that includes Yosemite National Park, Mono Lake and two wilderness areas.

Lockyer, joined by environmental groups, wants the court to order the FAA to conduct a full environmental impact study of both the direct and cumulative effects of the airport project.

In fact, the study also should consider the overall effect wrought by Intrawest, the giant resort company that holds a majority interest in Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and is spending $500 million on the ski area and the town below. The company is building an upscale village in the town, to be linked to the ski area by a gondola.

In addition to the village with its shops and restaurants, Intrawest has built a golf course, condos and lavish townhouses that nudge $1 million in price. That figure's no big deal in Vail, Colo., but it's something to gasp about in Mammoth.

Intrawest officials have promised to transform Mammoth Lakes into the No. 1 mountain resort community in North America, bigger and "better" presumably than Vail, Aspen and a large Intrawest property, Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia.

If that's so, Mammoth will follow Vail and others into an alpine urbanism that prices moderate- and low-income people out of the housing market, creates sprawl in nearby areas where they can still, for now, find affordable housing and causes havoc in the fragile high-altitude environment.

It is a classic pattern documented by former Aspen journalist Hal Clifford in his new book "Downhill Slide: Why the Corporate Ski Industry Is Bad for Skiing, Ski Towns and the Environment." The book should be mandatory reading at Mammoth town offices.

Clifford says the publicly traded corporations are driven more by real estate profits than by the ski business. They seek short-term gains to satisfy stockholders rather than long-term stability for the mountain community.

"They have contributed significantly to the urbanization and gentrification of some of America's most magnificent places," Clifford writes. "They have displaced human communities and damaged natural ones."

That is the pattern looming before Mammoth. That is why a full environmental impact study now is so important. Town officials say they have done one, but the survey was laughably inadequate. Intrawest and town leaders claim everyone would benefit from the proposed transformation to an upscale destination resort. But that's not the experience of other resorts.

Mammoth residents deserve to know the full effect of this massive investment. After all, it's their town too.

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