A Storm Gathers Over a Resort Town's Airport

March 29, 2002




MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif., March 23 - On Friday afternoons from

November to April, tens of thousands of Southern California

skiers and snowboarders jump into their cars and drive

north. They make excellent time speeding through the Mojave

Desert, up the vast Owens Valley and along the eastern edge

of the Sierra Nevada, and arrive in this town 300 miles

from Los Angeles.


On Saturdays, they choke the local roads and crowd ski

slopes, shops, condominiums, restaurants and hotels. On

Sunday afternoons, nearly all return home.


The boom in this boom-and-bust cycle makes Mammoth Lakes

the nation's fifth-most-popular ski resort. The bust

creates a midweek ghost town. The area has lived with that

pattern since the early 1950's, when a young entrepreneur

named Dave McCoy sold a prized Harley-Davidson to buy what

became Mammoth Mountain's first ski lift, a portable rope



Now the town and resort are looking to the sky and seeing

salvation and growth in their plans to expand the local

airport to handle commercial traffic. Mammoth's planners

argue that regular air service is the key to diversifying

the visitor base: drawing tourists from farther away for

longer stays and ending a crippling dependence on weekend

visitors from Southern California.


For some, however, the prospect of Boeing 757's taking off

and landing 40 miles from the gates of Yosemite National

Park is shortsighted and environmentally irresponsible.

They say the airport's expansion would not only forever

change a quaint town that has some of the best back-country

skiing in the world but also further overtax Yosemite as

well as four lesser-known but equally prized nearby

environmental jewels: Kings Canyon National Park, Mono Lake

and two vast wilderness areas.


They also say the proposal ignores an obvious alternative:

upgrading the airport in Bishop, 40 miles to the southeast,

where a new terminal is almost complete, little additional

construction would be required and less environmental

impact is likely.


The opponents see a lot to protect. Migrating mule deer,

for instance, routinely traverse the boundaries of the

existing Mammoth Lakes airport, and sage grouse, a

threatened game bird, nest there. Bald eagles make the

mountains west of town their home, as do bighorn sheep.

These are hardly big issues in the more barren environment

of Bishop, on the desert floor of Owens Valley.


Bill Manning, the manager of the airport here, defends

expansion, pointing out that the Federal Aviation

Administration has issued a preliminary finding that the

project will have "no significant impact" on the

environment. "To think that the people in this town would

rape, pillage and plunder the environment, which is what we

live on, is in my mind ludicrous," Mr. Manning said.


Mammoth Lakes has obtained an F.A.A. promise of a $30

million grant to upgrade the taxiways and the lone runway,

pending the aviation agency's final environmental

certification. The town, which has an annual budget of $10

million, also plans to borrow $9 million to build a new

terminal. American Airlines is committed to starting

service when the expansion is completed.


This month the town government approved its own

environmental assessment favoring the project, which

envisions incremental increases in commercial air traffic:

from 37,000 travelers in the first year after expansion

(perhaps 2003) to more than 333,000 by 2022.

But the California attorney general's office and groups

including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the National

Parks Conservation Association have challenged the

environmental assessments of both the town and the aviation

agency. They maintain that the planners have failed to meet

federal and state requirements to protect the local

wildlife, and that additional growth would worsen air

pollution and tax the water supply.


Mr. Manning dismisses fears of uncontrolled growth. Though

Mammoth Lakes's full-time population has doubled in the

last decade, to more than 7,000, the four-square-mile town

and surrounding Mono County can grow only so much, he said.

"Mono County is huge," he said, "but 96 percent of the land

is publicly owned. Worries about sprawl are not going to



Further, if more people fly in, he said, there will be less

congestion from cars, and less pollution from their

exhausts, not only in town but also on the road to

Yosemite, because air travelers will be able to use the

area's extensive bus services.


But a local Sierra Club official, Owen Maloy, said the best

way to reduce auto traffic was to improve the airport in

Bishop. The runways there are already long enough, Mr.

Maloy said, and are at a much lower elevation - 4,000 feet,

as against 7,000 at Mammoth Lakes, making planes landing at

Bishop less susceptible to the area's routinely heavy



Rene Mendez, administrative officer for Inyo County, home

of the Bishop airport, agreed. With three runways, Bishop

is ready to handle 757's with only a few technical

upgrades, Mr. Mendez said. In addition, "we don't have the

environmental issues from a plant or animal-life



But in his five years in office, he said, Mammoth officials

have never asked about the Bishop airport's limitations or



"We only had one meeting where they came and talked to us,"

he said. "But what they asked us was would we support their

airport so we would not be competing with them for funding.

That left a really bad taste in our mouths."


Mammoth officials maintain that their own plans, far

advanced by now, are more feasible. In any event, the town

looks forward to the airport revenue that would be

generated by commercial traffic.


And what of the resort on which the whole matter centers?

Rusty Gregory, its chief executive, is aggressively pushing

the Mammoth proposal, but concedes that his top concern is

bringing in regular air service, whether to Mammoth or