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Dawn at Mineral King Valley (book review)

Having written about Mineral King in GG’s book (Mountains that Remade America), GG wishes that this book (along with Golden Rules and Ghosts of Gold Mountain) had been available before writing his own book. The preexisting narratives about the conflict in Mineral King were largely written from the perspective of the environmental movement; a lot of what was going on within the Forest Service and Disney was opaque or derived from the impressions of the Sierra Club’s team. Daniel Selmi’s book Dawn at Mineral King Valley helps to remedy the situation.

The bare bones of the story remain: Disney wanted to make a ski area and so he won the bidding to build one in Mineral King. The Park Service objected to the necessary changes to the road crossing the park but was eventually brought on board. The Sierra Club, reversing earlier positions, filed suit. This stalled the development and led to a famous Supreme Court dissenting opinion about the need for physical environments–mountains, lakes, rivers–to have standing without the need for people to demonstrate suffering. The case more concretely provided firm guidelines for environmental lawsuits and so has been a key part of environmental lawsuits ever since. The ski development was only killed by political action, moving Mineral King valley into Sequoia National Park; the lawsuit effectively amounted to a delaying action.

GG’s recounting focused strongly on the road and its role in providing cause for the lawsuit; as such, GG’s retelling of the lawsuit itself was compressed into a few pages with little about the lawyers involved. Some details were in error (the Sierra Club, for instance, did not withdraw its lawsuit so much as argue to get it dismissed without prejudice when the judge decided to kill it. And Disney’s shift from wanting a road to a railroad was unmentioned despite its relevance to the road issue). Selmi fleshes out the players and shows that the lawsuit had dimensions beyond the road, and, as you’d hope in a book dedicated to the lawsuit, a lot more subtlety was present. He also shows that the Supreme Court decision came perilously close to not providing the guidelines for such suits or the invitation for the club to refile its lawsuit. The appeals court decision that preceded this had thrown out all of the substantive challenges made by the club; had the Supreme Court addressed those or simply let the appeals court ruling stand, the club might not have had a chance to refile and the Mineral King ski resort might well have been built. But the court did avoid the substantive issues, and the trial court then demanded an environmental impact statement, which a chastened Forest Service took as need to oversee the project more closely, eventually leading to a falling out with Disney that seemed to sap energy from the project.

It is worth mentioning that the book is not a history of Mineral King. It is a history of Sierra Club vs. Morton and the impact that case has had on environmental law, and a thorough and needed book for that. In choosing to focus so tightly on the Sierra Club, other players are sidelined, like the holders of the summer leases in Mineral King as well as the private landowners in Silver City, make no appearance at all. Save for one sentence when a judicial question seemed to presume there were no land claims, these people are invisible. There is, for instance, a dispute about the way the final park bill was written, which would end the summer leases: residents argue they were blindsided, while others argue that this was made clear at the time and leaseholders were willing to suffer the loss. The resulting efforts of the leaseholders to get protection for their cabins led to new legislation that has dictated how the valley looks today and will continue to look in the future. The broader history may be found in Louise Jackson’s Mineral King; The Story of Beulah with some material also in Dilsaver and Tweed’s Challenge of the Big Trees, though the full story of the valley’s geology and its post-Forest Service history remain to be written. A major resource for those interested in Mineral King and the lawsuit is the collection of materials now held by the Three Rivers Historical museum in their Mineral King room.

Dawn at Mineral King alludes to the dawn of environmental lawsuits. In a way, there is an irony in the timing of this book’s publication. Increasingly, states and cities are recognizing that the sheer number of ways that projects get stopped and reexamined and blocked–all strategies evident in Mineral King–has come to enshrine NIMBYism and appears a key element in driving up housing prices. This was a fear within the Supreme Court in considering the question of standing: might this not be an open invitation for anybody to sue over just about anything? While Selmi notes that some subsequent rulings have tightened the rules on standing somewhat, the pressure to revise the ability to sue to block developments is increasing.

So in Selmi’s book we get a readable history of the start of the age of activist environmental lawsuits. It also carries a reminder of why getting standing was important. In challenging the Forest Service, the Sierra Club also illuminated a process that fundamentally ceded responsibility for public lands to a private developer. This was also a process that ended trust between the environmental movement and land use agencies; going forward they would tend to be opponents. If indeed courts and legislatures move to curtail such lawsuits, it is well to remember what good they allow and how and why they emerged.

Torching the Giants

Probably all of us who have spent time in the Sierra Nevada of California are familiar with the giant sequoias. And all of us have been wounded by the unprecedented demise of so many of these trees in fires the last couple of years. The most common explanation is like that from the LA Times:

With their towering canopies and thick bark, giant sequoias are adapted to withstand low-intensity fire, and even need it to reproduce. But ferocious climate-change-fueled fires of recent years have proved fatal to the trees that experts once thought were impervious to flames.

Wildfires killed thousands of sequoias in southern Sierra Nevada,” Los Angeles Times, 19 November 2021.

GG, being a bit of a contrary sort of person, would like to examine this a bit. There is certainly some truth to blaming climate change, but there might be more to the story.

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Shadowed by St. Helens

Today news reporters are almost happily diverting from COVID-19 to recount another disaster, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 on this date. As at least one news account notes, in a way the eruption was a great success for the efforts of the scientists who urged evacuations of areas around the volcano (there is a clear undercurrent of, “are we listening to the scientists today?”). Although there were deaths, there were far fewer than if there had been no evacuated red zone.

But events that started a week later, and went pretty much under the radar for years, provide the flip side to the “confident scientists save people” storyline: it was more “pretty worried scientists deal economic blow to town.” And given where we are in the COVID-19 story, it is worth remembering both the success of St. Helens and the failure(?) that started a week later.

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Oldest Parks

Sometimes the question arises, what was the first (or second or third) national park in the United States? In GG’s book, Sequoia is named the second federally-administered park and the first created in a state. But the chronology is kind of complex and there is another solid contender for the title. Here is a summary of some of the dealings with federal lands that became or were named National Parks:

  • 1832. Congress reserves from entry (meaning nobody can purchase the land) sections around the hot springs in Arkansas Territory that now are within Hot Springs National Park.
  • 1864. Congress turns over Yosemite Valley to the State of California for the purpose of public use, resort and recreation (Whitney terms this a national park in his 1869 guidebook).
  • 1872. Congress reserves Yellowstone as a public park (the phrase “national park” is not in the legislation.)
  • 1877. Mackinac National Park is created in Michigan by act of Congress (p517); here there is the phrase “national park”.
  • September 25, 1890. Bill creating Sequoia National Park signed by President Harrison. Very similar to the Yellowstone legislation and uses the phrase “public park” and not “national park.”
  • October 1, 1890. Bill creating Yosemite National Park (around Yosemite Valley), General Grant National Park, and expanding Sequoia National Park is signed. This legislation is more specific in what is to be protected and how, but terms these forest reserves and not parks.
  • 1895. Mackinac National Park is handed over to the state of Michigan along with the military reservation.
  • 1916. The National Park Service is created. In addition to the lands designated as national parks, the service oversees Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas.
  • 1921. Hot Springs National Park is officially created, replacing the Hot Springs Reservation.

Is Sequoia number 2? 3? 4? 5? Let’s review…

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Bloody Sierra

Two facets of the human history of the Sierra that GG (mostly) left out of his book came together recently. One was the genocide of California Indians during and after the Gold Rush, an outrage now officially apologized for by the governor of California, and the other was the immigration and emigration of Chinese associated with the Transcontinental Railroad, now addressed in Gordon Chang’s recent book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain. Both events and the stories of marginalized peoples are tied to the presence of the Sierra, but neither in such a unique way as to make each story a centerpiece in GG’s book. As this would seem to continue marginalizing these peoples, GG would like to explain a bit why these stories were not more prominent in the book.

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Signs of Mineral King


A SkiCooper trail sign.

Well, it’s January and ski season is in high gear in North America, halfway between the Christmas and Presidents Weekend high water marks for ski areas.  So many of you have seen lots of signs like those above. The irony is that these symbols, now so universal, were developed for a ski area that never was.

In 1964, the nascent National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) decided to try to make relatively uniform sign markers for skiers in North America. European ski areas had simply used colors; the new USA system would add shapes to the colors (which has obvious advantages for color blind skiers and for monochrome signage). But they committed a bit of a faux pas: the US intermediate color was used in Europe for out of bounds areas.


As this system was being promoted, Walt Disney Corp. was working on ski areas, largely because Walt had decided after the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley that he’d like his own ski area. Disney settled on Mineral King Valley, which set up a lengthy legal and political battle, but as part of the work being done for that development, Disney Corp. studied what would be the best signage to use. They were perhaps more sensitive to this given their experiences getting people around Disneyland.  Their studies suggested that circles were the softest shape and most suitable for easy slopes, followed by the squares and then diamonds. The NSAA saw their work and adopted it, pitching their own system aside.

Disney was never able to use their system at their own resort.


Disney and his Mineral King area. Via SAMLAND blog, 

As is discussed more thoroughly many other places (including GG’s own Mountains that Remade America), first the Park Service (that had to approve a realigned road) dragged its feet, and then the Sierra Club chose to oppose the development. Toss in the additional requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement, the death of Disney shortly after holding a news conference in Mineral King, a change in political representation and a general shift in the public from favoring development to favoring preservation¹ and the eventual death of the ski area proposal becomes clear.

Anyways, those signs (er, and the Country Bears Jamboree) are among the most lasting reminders of the Mineral King debacle. The influence of Disney’s work on skiing symbols even evolved into a warning system for something a bit more hazardous: volcanoes. Although the USGS was blocked for awhile after a volcano advisory in Mammoth Lakes misfired, because communication with local officials and, later, the public became necessary, the Long Valley USGS group used these now-familiar symbols for awhile (1997-2006):

So while Disney loyalists to this day pine for the ski area that never was, they can console themselves (a little) in seeing these reminders on any North American slope they care to visit.

¹ for instance, during this time Denver went from seeking the 1976 Winter Olympics to refusing to host them, largely over financial concerns but also because of environmental objections.

Book Knowledge

Well, its been several months since The Mountains that Remade America came out, and it feels like it is worth a moment to contemplate the process, particularly the surprises.  Just in case anybody else is interested.

Writing an academic trade book is kind of neither fish nor fowl.  A textbook is in some ways a glorified collection of lecture notes. Now you do have to go through and fix up things, and often you realize there are things you don’t teach that should be in the book, but this is material you are deeply familiar with.  Often the hardest part is coming up with exercises at the end of chapters that aren’t too bland and aren’t too hard.  Tedious, yes.  In some ways the oddest part about textbooks is that you don’t generally cite the source material the way you might in a journal article, which can be liberating.

A regular trade book (you know, like novels or anything without footnotes) is similarly liberating: maybe you sort of recall some piece of information, and you are pretty confident it is right, but you can’t lay your hands back on it, well, you can stick it in.  Now depending on the topic, a fact checker might be employed to look for mistakes, but that can be somebody else’s job.

No, an academic trade book rests on the author’s shoulders more squarely. Read More…

Sawyer redux?

GG has pointed out here and in The Mountains that Remade America that the Sawyer decision that ended hydraulic mining in most of the Sierra Nevada is a very interesting precedent when you consider global warming and oil and gas companies. We’re getting closer to seeing if the comparison will withstand real scrutiny, as the City of New York has filed suit (joining a number of smaller jurisdictions, including Boulder) against the five largest oil companies. As with the plaintiff in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield, the New York City case alleges material damages, and as in the older case, this was a consequence of the action of several companies.  And as in that case, the only way to mitigate damage would be to leave large economic reserves of a mineral (as legally defined) in the ground. Arguably the 1884 decision recognized that the damage to a growing economic sector (agriculture) outweighed damage to a stagnant sector (gold mining). We’ll see if any judge in the U.S. wants to walk in Judge Sawyer’s footsteps….

Take me back to Ahwahnee…

Update of sorts July 2019:  The old names (the Ahwahnee, Wawona Lodge, Curry Village) have been restored after the trademark dispute mentioned in the op-ed was settled. This apparently evoked some emotional responses from long-time park-goers. No word on any reaction from the descendants of the original inhabitants.

A curious op-ed in the New York Times on Yosemite.  Curious because it points in one direction for a long time before suddenly screeching to a stop and pointing in another. Leveraging off of the controversy over Confederate monuments and the renaming of some park facilities necessary during a court battle, Daniel Duane recounts the sad history of Native Americans in California in general and in the valley in particular. Readers can anticipate the point: we should abandon the Euro-Americanisms in the park and revert to names the Ahwahneechee used. And indeed he reaches this point only to ask the descendants and relatives of these people what should be done.  Their recommendation: get federal recognition for the tribe and cut back on visitation. “Renaming, [Bill Leonard, a descendent of Tenaya] said, ‘is not going to make us feel any better or more important — the reality is, most of us could care less what they call things.'” You get the feeling Duane was asked by some reader or editor to ask these people about their views (much as interviews with descendants of slaves and Confederate generals have appeared) and was given an answer kind of at odds with the thrust of the piece, which he dutifully tacked on.

Anyways, the summary of injustices is fair (Duane fortunately relies on a couple of pretty appropriate references) and something more Americans should be aware of. But he kind of lets the Park Service off the hook, hiding their role behind more generic labels of “park officials” and the “federal government.” Pre-1906 management of the valley by the state allowed the Ahwahneechee to stay in the valley, and while demands for inappropriate “Indian” shows and their menial position in Yosemite Park contrasts with what should have been their place as owners and proprietors of the valley, they were at least considered to be legitimate residents of the place. Federal management systematically marginalized and removed Native Americans; that management was, after 1916, the Park Service. There is something disturbing to most Americans to realize that one of the most highly thought-of groups of public servants did in fact behave in such a manner. And it is distressing to many who call the national parks “America’s Greatest Idea” to recognize that it was prefaced on the exclusion of the peoples who had been there first.

Duane also takes a hesitant slap at John Muir, and here GG asks a bit of forgiveness for delving a bit deeper.   Read More…

Golden Rules (book review)

GG has finished reading Mark Kanazawa’a Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush. It is not light reading (reader should beware that this is part of the University of Chicago’s “Markets and Government in Economic History” series).  In a sense, this book seeks to explain through economic theory how water law (and, to a lesser degree, mining law) evolved as the Gold Rush progressed. In some places this provides real insight, and in others it felt like forcing a straitjacket onto history, but the evidence presented is quite interesting.

Basically there are three main datasets mined here: descriptions of mining activity in the Alta Californian, mining camp rules, and California legal cases. As an economic historian, Kanazawa is clearly hoping for some quantitative data to sink his teeth into, and so the intent is to see trends over the whole of the goldfields.  As such, he is hoping that the record in the Alta Californian and in the available mining camp codes are not biased by the newspaper’s editorial slant or the fragmented record of the early mining camps.

With these in hand and the writer’s interest in economic history, the text generally explores a number of particular cases that suggest general trends, substantiates these with an overview summary analysis of the evidence, and then interprets this in terms of economic theory. For the general reader, the economic arguments can seem to wander into unfamiliar terminology rather too quickly, but the remainder of the book is very accessible. Given that the water rights that emerged from California have come to dominate the West, this is an important work if you want to understand resource law in the West.

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