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A ski resort in Sequoia National Park? It almost happened

One of the earliest examples of NEPA’s importance and profound effect on conservation efforts came in the 1970s after Walt Disney Company proposed construction of a ski resort in Sequoia National Forest.

With some 38 distinct groves, Sequoia National Forest is home to the greatest concentration of giant sequoias found anywhere in the world. Here, trees often exceed 250 feet in height and 2,000 years in age.

In February 1965, however, the Forest Service issued a prospectus inviting proposals for a ski resort in the valley, then part of Sequoia National Forest. Walt Disney Company answered the call, its plans envisioning a five-story hotel complete with 1,030 rooms, a movie theater, general store, pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and a golf course on the floor of Sequoia National Forest’s Mineral King Valley. Twenty-two lifts and gondolas would scale the eight glacial cirques above the village, leading to ski runs four miles long with drops of 3,700 feet. 

Construction of the ski resort would clearly interfere with the preservation of the nearby Sequoia National Park, surrounding forest area, and local wildlife. Adding insult to injury was the fact that that Congress had already designated Mineral King a National Game Refuge in 1926, and Sequoia National Park bordered the area on three sides.

On June 5, 1969, Sierra Club sued Sequoia National Park, Sequoia National Forest, and Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture in federal court, arguing that the project improperly handed control of too much national forest land to Disney and that the highway through the national park was illegal. A trial judge issued a preliminary injunction, halting work until the case reached the Supreme Court.

The high court struck the Sierra Club a blow on April 19, 1972, when it ruled against the organization on procedural grounds in Sierra Club v. Morton. In a 4-3 decision, the court held that the organization—founded by John Muir in 1892—lacked standing to sue because it had not shown how the proposed ski resort would injure any individuals, as opposed to the collective interests of the club’s membership.

While Sierra Club took time to amend its complaint and show it had standing to sue, an important piece of legislation passed: the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Signed into law by President Nixon on January 1, 1970, NEPA requires federal government and project sponsors to engage in a review process designed to identify potentially adverse effects on the environment and our public health before construction begins. Simply put, NEPA sought to ensure that those who manage projects make the decisions in the best interest of local communities while involving the public.

With the passage of NEPA, Disney was required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) detailing what impact the resort would have on the area. Disney, after reviewing the severe ecological impact of their plans, backed out and Sequoia National Forest was saved.

In 1977, the Forest Service attempted to revive the resort plan, but by then Walt Disney Productions had walked away. Less than a year later, President Carter expanded the boundaries of Sequoia National Park to ensure the permanent protection of Mineral King in 1978.

 

[1] Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727 (1972). Available at: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/405/727/case.html

[2] “In the ’60s, Disney Almost Built a Ski Resort in Sequoia National Park.” Gizmodo. February 18 2014. Available at:
https://gizmodo.com/a-mountain-disneyland-how-disney-almost-built-a-ski-re-1525286740

[3] “Should nature have standing to sue?” High Country News. January 19, 2015. Available at:
https://www.hcn.org/issues/47.1/should-nature-have-standing-to-sue

[4] Mineral King: Breaking Down The Courthouse Door.” Earthjustice. Accessed February 26, 2018. Available at:
https://earthjustice.org/features/mineral-king-breaking-down-the-courthouse-door

 

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