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Brakes on Airport Plan

May 05, 2003

You know something is seriously amiss when a federal judge uses terms such as "wishful thinking," "tunnel vision," "implausible" and "strains credulity" to describe a plan that other officials had rubber-stamped. Such is the case with Mammoth Lakes' grand scheme to land Boeing 757s packed with wealthy visitors from Chicago, Dallas and perhaps even Paris at what is now a tiny airport ringed with mountain wilderness and quietly burbling streams.

So stinging was this judicial rebuke that it should shame federal aviation officials into reversing their bad decision to help expand Mammoth's airport and inspire town officials (not to mention U.S. taxpayers) to reconsider the whole idea.

The 21-page court decision found that Mammoth and the Federal Aviation Administration utterly failed to conduct an adequate study of how jet service would affect the region. The agency had issued a superficial study declaring that a $30-million airport expansion project would have no significant effect on the area's environment. Trouble is, the report looked no further than the borders of the airport itself in its report.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Bernard Zimmerman of San Francisco lambasted this "myopic" view of the project, saying it failed to calculate the effect of those jets and the ski- and snowboard-toting tourists they'd carry. He halted airport work pending a new environmental study that measures the growth-inducing effects of the project.

The town -- which owes its cachet to the gorgeous, publicly owned landscape that surrounds it and its survival to the ski resort's use of public forest land -- has winked at the question of growth for years. Indeed, critics' fears of what would happen if Mammoth became an Aspen-style resort are already being realized.

Developer Intrawest is pumping an estimated $1 billion into Mammoth Lakes and the ski area, including a new town village -- promoted as "the heart Mammoth never had" -- and upscale housing. The Mammoth Times recently listed a two-bedroom "starter or vacation cabin" at $349,900 and a two-bedroom Intrawest condo at $409,000. Million-dollar homes now are common, but the dudes who work for wages -- loading people onto lifts and flipping gourmet burgers because they love skiing, hiking, fishing or just the serenity of mountain life -- now have to commute from as far away as the flatlands of Bishop.

The new study will give town decision makers and residents a chance to wrestle honestly with the real long-range cost of this expansion: Will it increase or decrease air and water pollution, noise, sprawl, traffic, wildlife, the water supply? The pause will give them a chance to reconsider their views on growth for the region.

But the people who own much of the surrounding land -- the American public -- need to think about this too. Will a family camping at nearby Hilton Creek or a fisherman admiring the surrounding peaks from Convict Lake take home memories of birdsong or a jet's roar? Does it matter?

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