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The little-known history of Disney's abandoned Sierra Nevada ski resort: 'Public agencies now have to justify what they've done'

"This is a different story."

Disneys Sierra Nevada ski resort

Photo Credit: iStock

If you've never been to Disney's Sierra Nevada ski resort, there is a very good reason for that. Simply, it does not exist.

Walt Disney himself was a key figure in the proposals for the ski resort, which would have brought an "American Alpine Wonderland" to the Mineral King Valley site that then neighbored the Sequoia National Park, per KCET

But the development never came to pass, and the dissension to the project brought about a significant change in United States law, in which environmental groups could sue government agencies for unethical plans.

What were the plans for the Sierra Nevada resort?

In 1965, what was then known as Walt Disney Productions proposed the construction of a five-story hotel with 1,030 rooms in Mineral King Valley, where visitors could take advantage of four-mile ski runs in addition to an ice rink, tennis courts, and a golf course. 

According to KCET, it was expected the resort would bring $600 million in revenue in its first decade. 

However, the resort itself and subsequent transportation needs would have led to the serious destruction of vital ecosystems and environmental beauty, and nature lovers weren't about to let that happen.

"This is a different story if it's not surrounded by Sequoia National Park," said Daniel Selmi, an emeritus law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. 

"But even without the park, Disney's ski resort would have had to be smaller," Selmi said. "At some point, you end up with a project so big that you lose sight of the area itself. You have to make a decision — is this an area of such breathtaking beauty that 100 years from now we want people to be able to go in there and look at it and say, 'Wow,' without seeing [a ski resort]?"

Why did the project fail?

Despite proposals for the plan being accepted in 1965, legal action and activism soon followed. 

Most notably, the Sierra Club was at the forefront of the opposition. As KCET observed, the group of nature lovers held "hike-ins" and petitioned federal officials to save the area from the destruction that would be caused by construction on the site and surrounding infrastructure. 

The Sierra Club sued leaders of the Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest in 1969, suggesting that Disney would have too much control of national forest land. That halted construction for three years. 

After the suit failed in the Supreme Court in 1972, Sierra Club made amendments to its challenge in 1976. With the death of Walt Disney and the company under new leadership, the decades-old plans soon petered out. The project was officially mothballed by Congress in 1978, and Mineral King was integrated into Sequoia National Park.  

How did the Sierra Club change the face of environmentalism?  

Not only did the actions of the Sierra Club draw significant attention to its environmental efforts because of the organization they were up against, but its legal challenges led to a change in the law. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, despite Sierra Club losing its 1972 case in the Supreme Court, the subsequent ruling still established that it was legally acceptable for environmental groups to sue government agencies. 

Furthermore, it shifted the Club's perspective, as the LA Times piece noted that the battle for Mineral King Valley saw it switch from a "relatively nonconfrontational band of outdoors enthusiasts to the harder-core, more organized conservation activists known today for their legal and lobbying muscle."

So the next time you see environmental groups challenge the government for unethical practices, just remember that it was the Sierra Club — and the misguided ambitions of Walt Disney, who was overlooking the importance of environmental conservation — that paved the way. 

"The Forest Service said repeatedly they had studied Mineral King to death before deciding to put a ski area there," Selmi said in the LA Times article. "And they hadn't done that. Public agencies now have to justify what they've done in much greater depth than they did before. It's like night and day. They have to be concerned with the law."

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