A coalition of environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit today in federal district court to force the Federal Aviation Administration to consider the growth-inducing impacts of an airport expansion project in the town of Mammoth Lakes in the eastern Sierra Nevada. The suit seeks to compel an Environmental Impact Statement on the project. The suit follows a recent Environmental Assessment/Finding of No Significant Impact by FAA, which fails to address the impacts of converting the small airport into a facility able to bring in thousands of tourists every year. The lawsuit was brought by the Sierra Club, National Parks Conservation Association, California Wilderness Coalition, and Natural Resources Defense Council.
The proposed expansion would convert a small commuter facility into a major regional airport, landing B-737s and B-757s, carrying over a hundred of passengers each. Projected air traffic will vastly increase the need for more facilities -- hotels, condominiums, cabins, restaurants, shopping centers, rental car agencies, road upgrades, parking lots, traffic signals, etc. -- to support a large influx of visitors.
"With this project, Mammoth will be subjected to urban sprawl in a pristine scenic area close to wilderness and threatened wildlife," said local resident and Sierra Club member Owen Maloy. "We already have many visitors who drive in from Los Angeles and the rest of California. This project proposes to double the number of visitor-days with tourists arriving by plane. People need more information about how this will change our area. There is risk of destroying the very scenic values that attract visitors." The local chapter and group of the Sierra Club have endorsed the lawsuit.
Mammoth Mountain Ski Area currently supports approximately 1,000,000 skier-days per year. The owners seek to remake Mammoth in the image of Aspen and Sun Valley by attracting more out-of-state skiers to justify more real estate development. The project proposes to double the number of skier-days each winter, and vastly increase summer visitation as well. Mammoth Mountain will help fund the proposed expansion by "loaning" Mammoth Lakes the local funding share required under FAA guidelines for airport expansions. Mammoth has received a federal grant to cover the difference.
"The local community has been sold the promise of economic prosperity, which tends to shine more brightly than the environmental and social drawbacks. A full EIS would make explicit the potential costs in terms of additional expenses, sprawl, reduced air quality, traffic, noise, and the aesthetic quality of the area, so people can make informed choices," said Trent Orr, lead attorney for Earthjustice.
Growth induced by the airport expansion could also adversely affect several protected species in the area, including the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, sage grouse, Owens tui chub, and bald eagle. Increased tourism in the area would increase air pollution and pressure for more facilities in Yosemite and King's Canyon National Parks, Devil's Postpile National Monument, and several Sierra wilderness areas.
"Mammoth Lakes is the eastern gateway to such national treasures as Yosemite National Park and the John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas, and is itself a special place, with several unique species and habitats. A full-blown EIS would address impacts to these resources resulting from the airport expansion, which the FAA has thus far ignored," said Steven Krefting, spokesperson for the National Parks Conservation Association, another co-plaintiff in the lawsuit.
"The beauty of the surrounding environment is this town's true natural resource. It would be a tragedy to see this irreplaceable resource damaged by poorly-planned development not contemplated in the environmental review," said Johanna Wald, spokesperson for co-plaintiff NRDC.
Trent Orr, Earthjustice, 415-206-0898
Owen Maloy, Sierra Club, 760-934-9511
Steven Krefting, NPCA, 510-839-9922
Johanna Wald, NRDC, 415-777-0220
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