Standing on Sawtooth Peak, I learn that nature is its own medicine. Evening light floods the ridgeline and soothes the scrapes, aches and bruises I earned in the odyssean climb to get here. My pains relent to the panorama of mountains draped in dusky light.
Sawtooth cuts like a shark's fin above the granite sea, painted pink and orange under a rainbow sky. The mountain is more than 12,000 feet tall, but so am I. This morning, in a valley 4,000 feet below, I watched the sun rise behind Sawtooth and strained over its distant features. Now, in the setting sun, I see every line in its handsome face.
Turning west, I look across the valley toward slopes and bowls, and visualize skiers carving down to the warmth of a lodge. I narrow my eyes and imagine daisy-chain ski lifts and bald patches where towering pines now grow. I see the lights of an Alpen village turn on as night creeps in. The sounds of thousands of visitors fill the valley. This was Walt Disney's vision for Mineral King, the wild and rugged landscape that rolls out before me, which became one of the nation's great environmental issues during the 1960s and 70s.
As if stirred by some bad dream, I widen my eyes, relieved that Disney's vision never came to pass. That it did not is because Earthjustice's founding attorneys had a strikingly different vision of Mineral King. The world's largest ski resort wasn't in it.
The fight to preserve Mineral King has all the dramatic twists and turns of an episode of Law & Order. The short version starts soon after Disney's development proposal was submitted in 1965 to the U.S. Forest Service. After exhausting a variety of other means to stop the project, the Sierra Club initiated an attempt in 1969 to protect Mineral King through the courts—a novel approach at the time. The ambitious young attorneys who in 1971 started Earthjustice, known then as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, were extensively involved.
The case made an odyssean climb of its own—all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Though the court ruled against the Sierra Club in 1972, what was ostensibly a defeat actually pointed the way to a monumental victory. A footnote in the majority opinion indicated that the attorneys for Mineral King might have demonstrated that private citizens who use the valley would be irreparably harmed by the development.
Earthjustice fully took over the case and did exactly that. The amended strategy set the stage for Mineral King's inclusion in 1978 as a part of Sequoia National Park. But it also yielded an even sweeter prize: the precedent that private citizens have the right to engage our nation's courts in matters of environmental protection. This invaluable tool has time and again served Earthjustice and our client groups—more than 700 of them—in thousands of environmental victories over the last 40 years. Without it, Mineral King—and scores of other special places across the country—might today be very different, indeed.
When the sun finally dips below the horizon, I pull myself away from the deep spell of the land and return to my backpack. It feels like I'm carrying Sawtooth Peak itself when the buckle on my hip belt clicks into place, but the burden is a small price to wander in such beauty. Before crossing the ridge and descending to the night's destination—Columbine Lake—I take one final look at the Mineral King valley, now glowing in faint purple. I find it shocking that there was ever a question about whether this gem should be a part of Sequoia National Park. How could anyone think otherwise?
The reason is that Mineral King once carried a burden, too. Six generations ago, a young prospector saw the valley as the site of a silver boom. Throngs of miners arrived and the valley soon sang with the "pling" of pickaxes. But sunny optimism quickly encountered the cold reality of Sierra winters and disagreeable lodes. Within a decade, the bustle went bust.
By the time Sequoia National Park was established in 1890, the miners were long gone from Mineral King. Their fingerprints, however, were not. Because of that imprint, the valley was excluded from Sequoia at its inception and again when the park was enlarged in 1926. Over time, the land healed as the mining scars faded. Fortunately, the desire to see it protected did not.
The next day, we pick our way across boulder fields to reach the other side of Columbine Lake. Near the lake's outlet, an elderly man is scouting a suitable campsite for his weary companions, who are just starting to appear along the small ridge ahead of us. He asks about the unwieldy 3-foot metal bar that's strapped to my backpack like the horizontal beam of a cross. "It's a portable dolly," I say, as I explain that Chris and I are in Mineral King documenting the place that Earthjustice was born to protect.
The appreciation that floods his face is warmer than the midday sun. He extends his thanks, both for the organization's work to protect Mineral King for him and his friends to enjoy, but also for our specific task of documenting the area so that those who have never been and may never go also get a glimpse of its special beauty.
We spend a moment in silence together, watching the clouds pass over the sparkling surface of the lake, thankful to be in a place that at once makes us feel so big and so small. In that moment, we see Mineral King through the same eyes—all the more striking because the history of the place is so clearly one of competing visions.
There are some places, Mineral King is but one of many across this great nation, that should never be given over to any force that would strip them of their wild character—no matter the mineral, fuel or other commodity that might reside within. Such places offer a greater gift: the opportunity to visit with our own wild character and be in awe of a place where human footprints are still soft—in other words, a chance to be healed. But they are also a fundamental part of our nation's character. In this way, it hardly matters whether we explore them fully, skirt their borders or only visit them in our mind. What matters most is that they exist. May it always be so.
In the summer of 2011, Sam Edmondson and Chris Jordan-Bloch backpacked through Mineral King, a remote and wild spot in Sequoia National Park where Earthjustice was born 40 years ago.
Sam, a writer and campaigner for Earthjustice, and Chris, the organization's multimedia producer, both carried packs heavy with camera and video equipment.
Their goal: to capture in words and images the magic of a place saved from development by one of the earliest legal fights on behalf of the environment.
And don't miss the behind-the-scenes story of the journey to gather the video and photo materials for this website.
Above: Closeup of Black Kaweah (13,680 feet, left) and Red Kaweah (13,720 feet, right) from Black Rock Pass in Mineral King Valley.
Sam was an Earthjustice clean air campaign manager who worked on strengthening air quality standards in communities across the country.