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Just in Time, a Sierra Angel

March 20, 2004

At age 71, having survived a tough bout with cancer, most people would be pulling back on new projects. Not Andrea Lawrence, the Eastern Sierra environmental angel who, more than 30 years ago, prompted a lawsuit that vastly broadened the scope of the new California Environmental Quality Act.

During 16 years as a Mono County supervisor, she helped create the Sierra Nevada Alliance, a regional environmental protection coalition. Now she has founded the Andrea Lawrence Institute for Mountains and Rivers to work for a balance between economic growth and preservation of the region's natural beauty. This is something Lawrence talked about long before anyone envisioned the influx of people and money associated with the growth and development pressures that are hitting the Eastern Sierra.

In late February, the think tank (on the Web at www.alimar.org) drew a diverse audience to its first conference, including representatives of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Mammoth Mountain ski area developer Intrawest and the U.S. Forest Service. Lawrence, of Mammoth Lakes, has clashed with some of those organizations, but she has the ability to bring opposing parties together to discuss contentious issues with civility. Nothing is needed more in the Eastern Sierra right now.

Bishop has become a worldwide center for rock climbers and others in pursuit of adventure sports. The town and ski area of Mammoth Lakes is undergoing a multibillion-dollar makeover. Land and housing prices are soaring. The conference formed task forces to explore individual issues such as the severe shortage of affordable housing.

The Eastern Sierra is a glaring example of an area at risk because of the lack of state planning guidelines and the inclination of local government to avoid imposing regulation. The Lawrence institute can play a pioneering role in providing for development that yields a strong economy while preserving the amenities that make the area such an attractive place in which to live and play. The key will be getting a broad consensus, which will help persuade town and county governments to adopt the ideas into law and regulation.

In 1952 in Oslo, Lawrence won two gold medals at the winter Olympics and she remains the only American to have earned two Olympic top honors in alpine skiing. She says that experience "helped lay the groundwork for the rest of my life." The Californians who love the Eastern Sierra are grateful she is still building on that foundation.

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