Today, Mineral King Valley is a remote hideaway within California's Sequoia National Park, accessible only by foot-trail or a winding, treacherous automobile road. But in the 1960s this mountain paradise of snowmelt streams, white-fir forests, and hulking granite peaks nearly became home to a massive ski resort developed by the master of mass entertainment: Walt Disney.
In February 1965, the Forest Service issued a prospectus inviting proposals for a ski resort in the valley, then part of Sequoia National Forest. Six proposals answered the call, and in December 1965 the Forest Service announced the winner: a bold plan from the company that created Mickey Mouse and Disneyland.
The proposal by Walt Disney Productions (today, the Walt Disney Company) envisioned an "American Alpine Wonderland" on the floor of Mineral King Valley: a five-story hotel with 1,030 rooms, a movie theater, general store, pools, ice rinks, tennis courts, and a golf course. Twenty-two lifts and gondolas would scale the eight glacial cirques above the village, leading to ski runs four miles long with drops of 3,700 feet.
Disney realized that ski operations alone were rarely profitable, but visitor services would produce projected revenues of $600 million over the resort's first decade. Ten restaurants and cafes would feed the hungry crowds — including a 150-seat coffee shop perched atop Eagle's Crest Ridge, 11,090 feet above sea level. For entertainment, Disney's Imagineers designed a show with singing, robotic bears that eventually became the Country Bear Jamboree attraction at Disneyland.
The ski resort was one of several ambitious projects that Walt Disney spearheaded in the years before his death in 1966. (Others included an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT; and the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts.) An avid skier, Disney had served as director of pageantry at the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. An earlier trip to the Swiss Alps for the production of "Third Man on the Mountain" inspired Disney to install a steel-and-fiberglass, 1:100-scale replica of the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Now he would build an alpine village among real snow-capped mountains in the Sierra Nevada.
Much of the resort was to be car-free; day-use visitors and hotel guests would park downslope in an 8-10 story garage with room for 3,600 automobiles. From there, a cog railway would transport them to the main resort area. The Disney plan also called for extensive support infrastructure, including water storage tanks and a sewage treatment facility. The resort's price tag: $35 million. (By comparison, Disneyland had cost only $17 million in 1955.)
Wilderness activists were appalled. At the time, only 33 campsites dotted the Mineral King Valley, which attracted 24,000 annual visitors, most of them arriving in the summer. The Disney proposal projected annual visitation of at least one million.
Compounding the insult was the fact that Congress had designated Mineral King a National Game Refuge in 1926, and Sequoia National Park bordered the area on three sides. In fact, Congress would have likely already incorporated Mineral King into the park if not for the area's history as a mining district.
Mining the King
Miners discovered silver in the Mineral King area in 1872. Within a year, prospectors scouring the rugged terrain for ore deposits had filed dozens of claims. A boomtown of 3,000 sprang from the floor of Mineral King Valley, and a primitive wagon road snaked its way up the mountainside from the foothill town of Three Rivers.
But this boom, like so many others in California’s mountains and deserts, soon turned to bust. A series of destructive avalanches beset the valley in 1879, and disappointing returns from the mines gave lie to Mineral King's name. By 1882 the mining village had all but faded into a ghost town.
Mineral King then began attracting a new breed of visitors — hikers, campers, horseback riders — as its flora and fauna recovered from mining's heavy footprint. Even more recreational visitors came after 1890 when Congress created Sequoia National Park in an adjacent watershed, and by the 1920s the valley was home to several clusters of summer cabins.
When Congress enlarged the national park's boundaries in 1926, a doctrine of "worthless lands" still governed the preservation of national parkland — in other words, areas that could be exploited as farmland or for their mineral resources were excluded from protection. Because mining might someday return to Mineral King, Congress left the area in the hands of the Forest Service, which largely managed public lands as economic rather than as scenic or biological resources.
The Sierra Club Joins the Fray
Still, little changed about Mineral King's primitive feel, even after the Forest Service first and unsuccessfully tried to attract a ski resort developer in 1949. Meanwhile, much of the nation had embraced a new, preservation-oriented wilderness ethic — a change that culminated in the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964. So when the Forest Service and Disney announced their plans for the valley in 1965, activists leaped into action, led by the Sierra Club.
The ensuing legal and public relations battle is richly documented in the USC Libraries' Mineral King Development Records collection, the personal archive of an environmental activist who challenged the development — and won. Jean Koch was among an army of nature-lovers, led by the Sierra Club, who for more than ten years petitioned federal officials, penned letters to the editors, and staged "hike-ins" to save the solitude of "the King" from the planned resort.
At first, the battle centered on the fact that six miles of a proposed all-weather access road would cut through Sequoia National Park, displacing some eight million cubic yards of rock and dirt. As Disney launched a three-year snow study and finalized its plans, the Sierra Club lobbied the National Park Service to block the highway project. But once the park service and its supervisor, interior secretary Stewart Udall, approved the road, the club resorted to litigation.
On June 5, 1969, the club sued the heads of Sequoia National Park and Sequoia National Forest and the interior and agriculture secretaries in federal court, arguing that the project improperly handed control of too much national forest land to Disney and that the highway through the national park was illegal. A trial judge issued a preliminary injunction, halting work until the case reached the Supreme Court.
The high court struck the Sierra Club a blow on April 19, 1972, when it ruled against the organization on procedural grounds in Sierra Club v. Morton. In a 4-3 decision, the court held that the organization, founded by John Muir in 1892, lacked standing to sue because it had not shown how the proposed ski resort would injure any individuals, as opposed to the collective interests of the club's membership.
The Controversy Fizzles
Even as the Supreme Court handed Disney and the Forest Service a victory, another legal obstacle stalled construction. On Jan. 1, 1970, as the litigation was wending its way through the federal court system, President Richard Nixon had signed the National Environmental Policy Act, which required federal agencies to study the environmental effects of proposed actions in detail. Despite the high court ruling, then, work could not begin in Mineral King until the Forest Service analyzed the ski resort’s impact and published its results.
As the Sierra Club amended its lawsuit to conform to the Supreme Court's standing doctrine, the Forest Service prepared several drafts of its environmental impact statement. It released the final draft, a 285-page tome (nearly 600 pages, including appendices), in February 1976.
By then, Disney's proposal was more than a decade old, and the company's executive leadership — along with skiing enthusiasts and many in government — had lost interest in Mineral King.
Congress finally killed the project with the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. With President Carter's signature on Nov. 10, 1978, the Mineral King area became part of Sequoia National Park. Today, Mineral King Valley is still accessible by the old mining-era wagon path — now a one-lane automobile road — but most of the land once destined to become a mountain Disneyland is now federally designated wilderness.
For the Sierra Club, the Mineral King controversy marked a turning point for a group founded in 1892 with two stated purposes: "exploring, enjoying, and rendering accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast" and "preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains." Over time, the growth of automobile tourism in national parks and battles over dams in Yosemite's Hetch Hetchy Valley and Colorado's Echo Park showed that those dual purposes weren't necessarily compatible.
The club's priorities shifted accordingly. When the Forest Service first proposed a ski resort in Mineral King in 1949, the club had pledged its support. By 1965, the club's national board of directors had reversed its stance — but only by a split vote of seven to four. By the end of the Mineral King war, however, the club had firmly established its activist credentials. The Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, founded in 1971 to fight the Mineral King resort in court, lives on today as Earthjustice.
For Disney, Mineral King was not only the company's first public controversy but also one that tarnished its nature-friendly reputation, built on its successful “True Life Adventures” franchise of nature films. Before the Mineral King war broke out, Walt Disney Productions had earned 37 awards for its work with nature conservation, and the Sierra Club had made Walt Disney himself an honorary life member in 1955.
The company continued the fight at the expense of its public image. Disney himself might not have made the same decision were he still alive. In 1969, a company executive admitted to the Los Angeles Times that if Disney were still at the company’s helm, he likely would have pulled out in deference to environmentalists' concerns.
A 1971 review of the controversy in Ramparts magazine — accompanied by illustrations of a sinister-looking anthropomorphic mouse — summed up the damage done to the company's image of environmental friendliness. "The beautiful old nature films of the '50s are the illusion; the reality is the determination to use all the corporation's considerable goodwill and political clout to take over via the U.S. Forest Service at Mineral King," Ramparts' Roger Rapoport concluded. "It is the end to all our childhood fantasies: Mickey Mouse and Smokey the Bear conspiring to tear up the wilderness."
This article first appeared on Gizmodo on Feb. 18, 2014.