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Finally -- The Valley of Mineral King Becomes Wilderness

Mineral King -- the Sierra "birthplace" of Earthjustice and of environmental law -- is one of many wild places across the nation that were granted wilderness status on March 25 by Congress, freeing them from the threat of degradation by development.

After years of work and a recent false start, the Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009 passed through the House of Representatives. It already passed the Senate, and was signed into law by President Obama.

The new designation will permanently protect more than 2 million acres of America's wilderness in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Two expanses of wild lands protected by the legislation, including Mineral King and the Wyoming Range, are still in their natural state because of vigorous past efforts by Earthjustice attorneys. Of those, Mineral King has special significance for Earthjustice.

Tucked away in the Southern Sierra, Mineral King Valley is a subalpine jewel that attracted the attention of Walt Disney Corporation in the 1960's. Disney had visions of building a world-class ski resort in Mineral King to rival Sun Valley in size and provide recreational opportunities to people living in Southern California.

The Sierra Club was less than enthusiastic. Mineral King was surrounded on three sides by Sequoia National Park, and would have been included in the park save for some abandoned mine shafts left by miners when the ore played out two decades before the park was created.

The proposed resort would involve an access road across the national park and the construction of more than 20 chair lifts, hotels, restaurants, parking garages and dams on several creeks, all of which would damage the valley and interfere with hiking, backpacking, fishing, birding and other activities popular with club members in the summer.

Investigation also revealed that Mineral King is prone to stupendous avalanches in winter.

The club appealed to the Forest Service and the Park Service to deny the resort its permits, to no avail. The only recourse left was federal court.

This was a near novelty -- most courts required potential plaintiffs to demonstrate a financial interest in a matter they wished to ask the court to rule on. But the club insisted that the interest of its members in the recreational possibilities offered by Mineral King, plus its general mission of protecting places like Mineral King, should allow it to bring a lawsuit and ask for relief.

Judge William Sweigert, of the district court in San Francisco, agreed and blocked the project. The government appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court ruled that the Sierra Club had no right to bring the case -- it lacked "standing to sue." The club then appealed to the Supreme Court.

The high court ruled against the club but, in a famous footnote, said the club was free to return to the district court and refile the case with an extensive explanation of how the interests of itself and its members would be harmed by the resort.

The club did so, and Judge Sweigert reimposed the injunction. Disney, tiring of the bad publicity the case had generated, walked away. A few years later Mineral King was added to Sequoia National Park through legislation by Congressman John Krebs. Now, with its addition to the National Wilderness Preservation System, Mineral King will be protected in perpetuity.

The courtroom door, shouldered open through the Mineral King litigation, has remained open, and this kind of legal activity has become possibly the most powerful tool available to the environmental community.