Usually regarded as a local ski area for ski buffs in Northern and Southern California, to which it is readily accessible by car, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area (“MMSA”) is preparing to come into the 21st Century with a new lodge, updated lifts, and, perhaps most important to proponents of the development, an expanded airport. The expected transformation will be accomplished by the December 12, 2014 passage of the National Defense Authorization Act to which was attached an amendment specifically targeted at the MMSA. The amendment provides for a land trade of over 1,500 acres of public and private property in proximate counties, for approximately 21 acres of United States Forest Service (“USFS”) land surrounding Mammoth Mountain Inn, which is currently leasing that property as the center of ski operations of the MMSA. In addition, the Bill allows for a “cash equalization option” to facilitate the exchange, by which MMSA can make up any deficiency in the value of the property conveyed to the USFS with a cash equivalent.

Most important in MMSA’s view is the expansion of the airport.

In August, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) approved a new Airport Layout Plan (“ALP”) for the Mammoth Yosemite Airport (“Airport”) which includes proposed runway and associated parallel taxiway extensions, land acquisition for those improvements, as well as a terminal expansion. MMSA believes that “the combination of the Mammoth Mountain land trade and the FAA approval of an expanded commercial airport in Mammoth Lakes is a game changer. . .,” “now, for the first time, the mountain owns the land it resides on and can make improvements it can own. Plus the new airport will allow for flights from around the country.”

Environmental groups, not unexpectedly, deplore the new events. Mammoth Mountain is located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, surrounded by valuable natural resources, including the Owens and Walker Rivers, which are home to a variety of species fast losing habitat elsewhere. The debate over the expansion will be more clearly articulated during the environmental review process for the land exchange, pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act, 42 U.S.C. § 4321, et seq. (“NEPA”), which will start upon the signing of the Bill authorizing the land exchange.

Moreover, the FAA’s approval of the ALP was based on the satisfaction of certain conditions including that: (1) the proposed runway, taxiway extensions and land acquisition are not approved for short term developments; (2) FAA approve a terminal study that includes acceptable forecasts for use of the terminal; and (3) all development must comply with NEPA. Therefore, development depends not only on the success of the contemplated land purchases, but also upon satisfaction of environmental requirements. In California, those requirements involve not only NEPA, but also the California Environmental Quality Act, Cal. Pub. Res. Code § 21000, et seq. (“CEQA”) as well, with its much more rigorous analytic requirements.

In summary, although the land trade and associated airport expansion may be seen as a long term benefit to real estate development and the skiing public from outside California, the environmental controversy over the protection of the Eastern Sierra Wilderness will rage for many years to come.