Planned Airport Expansion Divides California Ski Town

By Robert Roper
for National Geographic Traveler
Updated September 5, 2003

TravelWatch is produced by the geotourism editor for National Geographic Traveler magazine, Jonathan B. Tourtellot. TravelWatch focuses on sustainable tourism and destination stewardship. This column, updated for National Geographic News, appeared originally in the print magazine. Look for TravelWatch every Friday.

An overcast, early April day with the scent of snow in the air. Raw winds blow out of the northwest, bending the scraggly sage. On the tarmac at the dinky airport in Mammoth Lakes, California, I count half a dozen small planes tied down against the wind. Beyond, snowy peaks rise from the desolate intermountain tableland. There's nobody around for miles.

Yet some people want this airport on the remote "Eastside" of the Sierra Nevada to welcome 757-size jetliners.

Mammoth Lakes is a ski town, and one of its charms has always been that feeling of remoteness. But the town government and corporate investors want to spend nearly one billion dollars (U.S.) to turn the place into an international resort destination to rival Aspen, Vail, and Whistler. Many residents—even some who stand to benefit from the expected rise in property values—are heartsick at the prospect.

The linchpin in the development plan is the airport. Commuter airlines have offered spotty service over the years, but in 2001 a commercial threesome—Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, American Airlines, and Intrawest, a Canadian resort developer—won tentative approval for an FAA grant of 28.9 million dollars (U.S.) to expand the airport. Opponents filed suit, and the project was grounded when a federal court in early 2003 said that the FAA had cut corners and required that the environmental impact on the expansion be fully reviewed. That review will help to determine whether the project flies again.

The idea of 757s winging into their environmentally spectacular region strikes some locals as nuts. To understand why, consider what the Eastside encompasses within a two-hour drive of Mammoth:

• The highest spot in the Lower 48, Mount Whitney (14,494 feet/4,418meters), which is best climbed from its eastern flanks.

• The lowest spot, Death Valley (282 feet/86 meters below sea level).

• The oldest living things, bristlecone pines (up to 8,000 years old) in the White Mountains.

• An 18-mile-long (29-kilometer-long) volcanic caldera, seismically active Long Valley.

• The continent's deepest cleft, Owens River Valley, its floor almost two miles (3.2 kilometers) below the summits that border it.

• The Sierra itself, John Muir's "Range of Light," including the eastern approaches to Yosemite.

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