A ski resort planned for the Sierra Nevada foothills by the U.S. Forest Service has raised fears that the development could threaten the survival chances of the California condor. And the controversy has set the Forest Service at odds with a sister agency responsible for protecting the endangered vulture.
The ski development, known as the Peppermint Mountain resort, would be located on about 6,000 acres of National Forest Service land east of the San Joaquin Valley city of Visalia. It is estimated that the resort at peak capacity would draw about 10,500 people a day for skiing and other winter sports.
At present an estimated 16 to 18 condors remain in the wild, and scientists charged with ensuring their survival have traced the huge birds' range to include the southern Sierra Nevada region and the coastal mountains north of Ventura.
According to Forest Service officials, development plans for the resort were initiated after the agency was approached by a group of local businessmen who had conducted a feasibility study. The resort has also been enthusiastically supported by organized skiing groups.
The Forest Service contends that the project would help meet a growing demand for winter sports facilities in Southern California. The agency says that by 1990 demand will outstrip capacity of present resorts by 640,000 "skier-days" a year. (A skier-day is one day's use of resort facilities by one person).
Julie Allen, the Forest Service's project coordinator, says the Peppermint site is regarded by the agency, in part, as a substitute for abandoned plans to construct a major ski resort at Mineral King, just south of Sequoia National Park. That proposal sparked an intense environmental debate in the 1970s, and Mineral King eventually was incorporated into the national park.
The Peppermint site also has produced opposition from environmental groups in the region, but the condor issue did not surface until the agency had completed its draft environmental study of the project last May.
In response to that study, the Condor Research Center in Ventura sent a critical letter to the Forest Service noting that the Peppermint site and related development would occur amid lands designated by the federal government as essential habitat for the condor. But nowhere in the study, the letter said, did the Forest Service consider the possible harm to the condor that might result from the development.
Condor Research Center
The Condor Research Center was established in 1981 as a joint project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society to carry out the government's plan to ensure the survival of the condor. That program now includes a captive breeding program and habitat preservation.
"We know there are condors in the area (of the planned resort)," said Michael Scott, a Fish and Wildlife Service biologist and director of the research center. "It is used as a nesting area, a roosting area, and adjacent lands are used for foraging. We are concerned that the development may result in the loss of rangeland and, therefore, loss of foraging opportunity to the condor."
Linda Blum, a habitat specialist for the condor center, said the resort would produce two problems for the birds: Increased traffic would produce higher noise levels for the notoriously shy vultures, and development of commercial and residential sites near the resort would "urbanize" the region and drive the birds away.
"The ranchers in the area are having a hard time resisting development now," Blum said. "Most want to hold onto their land but the pressures are building. The ski resort will make things much, much worse."
Concerns Called Overblown
Forest Service officials maintain that the condor center's concerns are overblown. Since release of the draft environmental study, the agency has conducted an additional review of the possible impacts on the condor and has concluded that the resort will not damage the bird's survival chances.
The roads leading to the resort area are currently used by noisy logging trucks, which apparently have not disturbed the condors, the agency says. Additional automobile traffic would produce noise levels lower than those of the trucks, the Forest Service says.
As for the secondary growth associated with the development, project coordinator Allen concedes that about 1,000 to 1,200 additional commercial and residential units would be added to the area. However, she maintains that such growth would be confined to a single corridor designated by Tulare County and to several smaller locations.
"The great bulk of the area will remain in large parcels of 160 acres or larger," Allen said. "We are talking about a small amount of development."
The controversy over the ski resort illustrates a growing dilemma facing condor protectors. Condors, on their nine-foot wings, can soar for hundreds of miles from their principal home in the coastal mountains around Ventura. To ensure their survival, biologists have concluded they must preserve habitats in the San Joaquin Valley and southern Sierra Nevada as well as the coastal areas.
In addition to the 16 to 18 condors believed to remain in the wild, some 15 others are now located in the San Diego and Los Angeles zoos as part in the government's captive breeding program. If all goes well, the first of the captive condors will be returned to the wild late this spring.
"Our problem is to preserve enough habitat for an eventual population of 200 or so birds," Scott said, "not just the 16 we have now. We are beginning to identify the key areas the condors will need throughout Southern California. As of yet it is too early to say whether the Peppermint region will be a key area. But it is definitely under study."
Representatives of the various agencies say they will meet in coming weeks in an attempt to solve their differences. If there is no solution, the Endangered Species Act requires that the Fish and Wildlife Service undertake a formal study to determine the impact on the bird.
Should it be approved, the Peppermint Mountain resort would be developed by private interests contracting with the Forest Service. The agency estimates the developer would be required to invest at least $70 million, and the project would generate about 2,400 permanent jobs in the area.