Three years ago, avid hiker Jim Walters made his first 11-mile, lung-busting trek to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.
“You see ... azure blue water and snow ... the play of the clouds and the distant mountains and forests,” recalled the 59-year-old medical ethics professor from Claremont. “It is just spectacular.”
But now Walters, who describes himself as a longtime Sierra Club member and a dedicated conservationist, wants to develop a 74-acre luxury housing subdivision below the jagged gray 14,494-foot peak and amid the brown, boulder-strewn hills used for countless Hollywood movie shoots.
Walters stands to make several million dollars from the venture, although he is making himself anathema to fellow environmentalists in the process.
“I see myself as a tree hugger, but there are those who hug the trees more tightly than do I. And [they] do not want to see any development,” he said.
Walters wants to sell 27 lots in the sagebrush about four miles from Lone Pine along the road that takes thousands of hikers, campers and other visitors to Mt. Whitney’s trailhead each year.
And that has set off a battle with environmentalists, local residents and others who want to preserve one of America’s sublime vistas: the view across the Owens Valley of virtually unblemished high desert rising majestically to the snow-clad peaks of the Sierra Nevada.
Inyo County planning officials have approved the project, but the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear an appeal Tuesday from opponents who have mounted a campaign to stop the development.
Walters has pledged to make his project, dubbed Whitney Portal Preserve, blend seamlessly into the natural surroundings.
But it is still sacrilege to hundreds of people who have signed petitions, packed public meetings and hired lawyers. Letters and e-mails of protest have poured in to local officials from hikers and conservationists across the country and in Europe.
The fight has divided this Eastern Sierra town of about 1,700 with an Old West flavor and scenery that make tourism the top industry.
Here, the debate over quality of life, development and the fragile desert landscape is intensified by an acute countywide housing shortage that officials say has stunted economic and population growth. Less than 2% of the county’s land is privately owned and available for building; the federal government and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power own the rest.
“If we put a skyscraper on every piece of developable land, we still could not accommodate enough people to cause a traffic jam,” said an exasperated Kathleen New, executive director of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of Walters’ development.
Opponents argue that the county should be concentrating new development around existing towns. Although there are already some homes scattered along nearby Lone Pine Creek, the critics say the Whitney Portal project would create a precedent for allowing new subdivisions in natural areas that make the region attractive to tourists and residents alike.
In “how many places in California do we have an opportunity not to blow it?” asked Bishop bookstore owner Lynne Almeida. “The fight is being fought all over the rural West, and it’s come late to Owens Valley, but it’s here now.
“We’re seeing the thin edge of the wedge of sprawly, leapfrog development,” said Almeida, who is on the board of the Save Round Valley Alliance, a 300-member group that has weighed in on development issues in Inyo County.
Half an hour’s drive from Lone Pine, Mt. Whitney was named for American geologist Josiah Dwight Whitney, who led an expedition there in 1864.
Last year, the U.S. Forest Service issued permits to 16,252 people who wanted to hike to the mountaintop.
Walters said he was reluctant to make the steep ascent, even though he had been hiking the High Sierra for almost three decades. However, it wasn’t the breathtaking challenge of a trail with nearly 100 switchbacks that rises more than 6,000 feet to the summit that deterred the Loma Linda University professor.
The crowds and the relatively barren trail made the route less appealing to him than lusher, less-traveled paths in the Sierra. But a friend coaxed him into going three years ago -- and he kept going back.
After one of his trips, Walters heard that a unique property was available at the base of the mountain on Whitney Portal Road. It comprised most of the Cuffe Ranch, a former hideaway for motion picture celebrities, including Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Cecil B. DeMille, Clara Bow and Will Rogers.
Near the base of the mountain, the ranch, originally owned by a movie director and later by a Paramount projectionist, was part of the famous Alabama Hills, which provided a rugged backdrop for such movies as “The Charge of the Light Brigade” with Errol Flynn, “Westward Ho” with John Wayne and “High Sierra” with Humphrey Bogart.
In August, Walters paid $1.5 million for most of the ranch, about 125 acres, using proceeds from real estate he sold in Southern California.
“I’m not a deep-pockets guy,” he said. “Since college, I have been interested in land ... and I thought I could pull it off.”
From the start, Walters said, he went out of his way to minimize the visual and environmental effects of the planned houses.
“Because I like Whitney and love the area, I want them to be as unobtrusive as possible,” he said.
People who build on the 2.5-acre lots, Walters said, will be subject to stricter conditions than those normally set by the county.
The houses will have deeper setbacks from the road than required elsewhere in the county. Street lights will have to be covered, so they don’t glare into the desert sky at night. Houses will have to be painted earth tones that match the landscape, and reflective material will not be allowed on roofs. Trees will be planted around the homes to help screen them from view.
But opponents say Walters has not adequately addressed concerns about several sensitive wildlife species, including the California burrowing owl and the San Emigdio blue butterfly, or about the demands the development will place on groundwater supplies. They also argue that it would take at least 15 years for trees to conceal the homes.
Their biggest concern, however, is that the project would create an aura of suburbia that would mar the view of the mountain for visitors who travel the road to Mt. Whitney each day of the summer. And the view from the mountaintop itself would be changed, critics argue. They say the development would look like a rectangular patch of green on the grayish desert terrain.
“Part of the argument for the project is that development happens everywhere in the country,” said Robert Frickel, a grade-school special education teacher who opposes the project, even though he once tried to buy the property and develop it as a commercial horse stable and animal park. “But does it have to happen in this place?”
Frickel lives in a housing development built nearby in the Alabama Hills years ago, a project he concedes probably could not have been constructed under today’s environmental restrictions.
Another resident there, Don Nichols, supports the right of Walters to subdivide his land and dismissed the opposition.
“Those who already have a home here have this attitude that we are here now and we don’t want anyone else to clutter it up,” said Nichols, who works at a sporting goods store and runs a guide service.
Walters said he had already received deposits for four lots, priced from $245,000 to $255,000.
With a total investment that he estimated would be $1.5 million to $2 million, it appears Walters has the potential to make several million dollars in profit. He declined to say whether he would later seek to develop about 50 more adjoining acres, as project opponents fear.
Whether or not the development is approved, the full-time professor said he did not intend to quit teaching and planned to give much of the profits to environmental causes, charities and his church.
“I am not getting into this for money -- although it could be significant,” he said.