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Blazing trails to unite Sierra ski town

Times Staff Writer

Like so many conflicts in the American West, this one began when newcomers put up a gate.

It was an artsy barrier, much like the posh developments that began to swell Mammoth Lakes even before Dave McCoy sold the famed Mammoth Mountain ski area in 2005. Owners in the new gated communities said they were only trying to keep cars off Ranch Road, where locals had long parked to ski or snowboard the Sherwins, a series of much-loved powder chutes on the edge of town.

The fight that ensued forced many here to ponder whether the area’s public lands were doomed to suffer the fate of some Malibu beaches -- public in name, but private in practice.

Ranch Road wasn’t the only place changing when the gate went up in 2005. A development boom was on. First came the 230-unit Village at Mammoth condo-retail development, complete with a new gondola, and several accompanying posh residences. There are 12 more large-scale developments in the works and plans to refit the airstrip for commercial flights.

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“This got me to thinking,” said John Wentworth, a local resident and avid backcountry skier who helped push a referendum that eventually won access around the gate. “How could a community whose entire economy is predicated on recreation find itself in a situation like this?”

In the hurly-burly of the boom, nobody was seeing the big picture quite like Wentworth. A co-producer of director David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” and “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,” he had bought a house in Mammoth and found it difficult to get around by foot or mountain bike. In big snows, pedestrians must take to the streets as SUVs and buses slide by. How hard could it be to build a trail system that really worked? Pretty difficult, it turns out.

Wentworth founded a nonprofit called Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access and took on a new persona as city planner, environmentalist and politician. He dived into an exhaustive, originally self-financed effort to master plan the connections between the town and surrounding wild lands, picking up backers and new recruits along the way.

First, the nonprofit was hired by the town to map almost 200 points of recreational access. Then, the group persuaded the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, the town government, the U.S. Forest Service, several developers and various interest groups, such as Nordic skiers and snowmobilers, to meet and discuss their views. Just getting all those people in a room was a victory to many.

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“It’s a novel thing for Mammoth to actually plan something!” said Mammoth Mountain Chief Executive Rusty Gregory, an early supporter. He sees protecting trail access as essential to making the place into a world-class resort.

Wentworth has “a very clear idea of how the trails would work, with common signage. He’s gotten people enthusiastic about it like no one I’ve seen here in Mammoth in years,” Gregory said.

The Mammoth Lakes Town Council got so excited that it took a 2007 tour of peer resorts, such as Sun Valley, Idaho, and Whistler in British Columbia, which have had trail-management nonprofit groups in place for as long as 20 years.

“We are competing with other destinations that have these very comprehensive systems, and we sometimes lose market share,” said Danna Stroud, director of tourism and recreation for the town. “We are in the backyard of Southern California, and there are 15 million to 17 million people down there that could be accessing us instead of going elsewhere.”

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Wentworth says the competitive edge will come from Mammoth’s unique relationship to federal lands.

The town consists of just 4.5 square miles, about the size of Culver City, squeezed on every side by the Inyo National Forest. Unlike other resort towns, such as Vail, Colo., or Park City, Utah, Mammoth cannot sprawl -- not without congressional intervention, anyway.

Many people in Mammoth have seen a film called “Resorting to Madness,” which chronicles the congestion in Vail and Park City, and they hope Wentworth’s group will help them avoid this fate. Instead, they imagine a small but densely populated resort with easy pedestrian access to the wild.

That will also be a boon to the local environment, said Julie Bear, Mt. Whitney area representative for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which gave the trails group a nearly $121,000 grant. The conservancy believes that Mammoth’s plan can be a model for how other rapidly growing Sierra communities can balance recreation and environmental protection.

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“We want people to get out of their cars and enjoy the beauty of nature,” Bear said. The trails group is “planning for that growth so that they have an accessible community and one [where] the trails are kept out of the most environmentally sensitive areas.”

The group has solicited more than $350,000 for this planning process. It has been so successful, in fact, that its only problem might be in creating unrealistically high expectations. Homeowners, developers, environmentalists and outdoorsmen are lobbying hard for what they want, and not everyone will win.

In a recent fight over a new ski trail to the Village development, for instance, Wentworth was astonished to find homeowners fighting hard to keep the trail out of their backyards. Snowmobilers -- who have clashed in the past with Nordic skiers and other non-motorized trail users -- want to keep access to 100 miles of trails they built with public grants.

“Our conflicts are not typically environmental resource conflicts; they’re social conflicts,” said Mike Schlafmann, deputy district ranger for the Inyo National Forest, who has been deeply involved in the process. “It’s motorized versus non-motorized, or cross-country skiers versus dog walkers and bikers versus runners.”

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“My hope is that MLTPA will be a clearinghouse for Nordic skiers, mushers, dog walkers, runners, snowmobilers, snowshoers and all the rest, so we have a way to communicate cordially,” said Bill Sauser, chairman of the Tourism and Recreation Commission.

He smiled at the word ‘cordially,’ noting that, as president of the Mammoth Lakes Snowmobile Assn., he has struggled to keep interactions on the trail polite.

“These conflicts are societal,” said Roger Rilling, who has followed the trails process closely. “Just like that Ranch Road thing: The second-home owners are scared, so they lock everything up. Everybody’s afraid they’ll lose their rights.”

And there are always those who don’t want change. One longtime resident who asked not to be named said: “I think we should be fighting the development instead. It’s like making something easier that shouldn’t be happening at all.”

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Exasperated, Wentworth threw up his hands at this suggestion, saying: “Ain’t gonna happen. Developers do what they do. If you don’t articulate these issues in their documents, in their processes, then I’m going to lose everything I love about this place.”

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dean.kuipers@latimes.com


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