A Storm Gathers Over a Resort Town's Airport
March 29, 2002
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
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