The story of Disney’s attempts to build a ski resort in what is currently Sequoia National Park is so interesting, with so much significance on the environmental battles of today, it’s historically surprising that no one has attempted to put it into a book until now.
There have been a few books that come close (Sam Gennaeye’s “Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City” is one) but until now, no author has compiled the entire effort into one comprehensive (available for purchase) work which focuses on the legal aspects of the effort.
Published on July 6, Daniel P. Selmi’s “Dawn at Mineral King Valley” tells the whole story of Disney’s efforts to develop a ski resort in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the Sierra Club’s efforts to oppose it.
And while the story itself is an exciting one, Selmi presents it in a way which turns a good story into an absolute page turner.
By starting with a scene from the halls of the Supreme Court before presenting its lead-up, Selmi builds up to a moment which has a surprising conclusion, even though you already know what happens (Disney does not build the resort.) As Selmi builds up to his Supreme Court scene, those who are enjoying his book will find themselves reading faster and faster to get to the moment they’ve been waiting for.
This technique works well in fiction, but the author’s ability to apply this to nonfiction – and a courtroom setting where legalese tends to make people tune out, no less – makes this one of the most exciting books about US public lands policy ever written.
The author in this case also recognized this story as being one exemplifying the old adage that truth is better than fiction. Indeed, if you were to write a fictional tale of a natural setting under attack by a developer, and you wanted to find the most extreme way to frame it, you would pick the world’s largest trees for your natural setting, and Disney for your developer .
Throw in the US Supreme Court, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, John Muir, Ansel Adams, Mickey Mouse, the Grateful Dead and even Jimmy Hoffa for characters and cameos and you’ve got a tale just waiting to be told .
At its core, it’s a book about the ski industry, which Colorado readers will find interesting. Several Colorado connections are present: University of Denver ski coach Willy Schaeffler was part of Disney’s development team, and Camp Hale and the 10th Mountain Division are cited as harbingers of the US ski industry.
Schaeffler is known locally as being skeptical of Vail’s chances of making it a world-class ski resortso when a surprise injunction threatens the legal standing of 84 existing ski resorts on federal lands, Selmi’s choice of a token ski resort is amusing:
“In effect, the Sierra Club would be arguing that all permits granted under this arrangement — including for resorts such as Vail, Colorado — had violated federal law,” Selmi writes.
And while that injunction didn’t result in the legal status of existing ski resorts being revoked, its resolution is equally as surprising in other ways.
Most importantly, Selmi points out that the injunction and ensuing Supreme Court hearing “showed that environmental interests could use the courtroom as a forum in which to air complaints about actions of the Forest Service.”
In the years that followed, “numerous cases cited Sierra Club v. Morton in finding that environmental plaintiffs had standing to sue, and in other cases standing was no longer contested.”
Selmi, in his acknowledgments, said he himself learned of Sierra Club v. Morton as a law student just after it was handed down in 1972.
He visited the Mineral King area of California a couple of times after that and continued to think about Sierra Club v. Morton for another 45 years, representing the Sierra Club as an attorney on several occasions.
“In one of them, standing was an issue, and it rekindled my interest in writing about Sierra Club v. Morton,” Selmi writes.
Some of the artifacts Selmi uncovers surrounding the case are true gems. One such piece is a letter from the Disney corporation admitting that they actually agreed with the Sierra Club’s assertion that they should have standing in cases like this one.
The Sierra Club, Disney wrote, “is an outstanding conservation organization of long standing,” and “we see no reason why the government should seek to preclude it from raising, in the proper way, serious questions affecting the administering of the public lands, “the letter reads.
Selmi pens the appropriate amount of follow-up analysis on his discovery of this letter which, by this point in such a well-told story, the reader has come to welcome and expect.
Disney’s agreement with the Sierra Club’s standing in attempting to block the project “could simply have been part of Disney’s strategy to get the attention of the Forest Service,” Selmi suggests. “But (Disney) followed it with an encomium recognizing the club as an outstanding conservation organization. This part of the letter is truly puzzling because — ‘outstanding’ organization or not — it was the Sierra Club that was blocking Disney’s Mineral King project.”
The book does a great job of foreshadowing other aspects of the Mineral King project; the avalanche danger of the Mineral King area was particularly well described. Selmi uncovers numerous details revealing how Disney’s competitor had recognized the area’s slide potential and tried to use Disney’s flippant attitude toward avalanche danger as a reason to award them the Mineral King lease instead, before sharing the story of how someone who was tangentially involved with the snow study was killed in an avalanche on Disney property during the snow study.
But “Dawn at Mineral King” doesn’t close that loop in pointing out how one of the workers was considered persona non grata in the Disney organization following the incident, according to reports at the time. But that’s an easy detail to find for yourself as Selmi is diligent in citing the many volumes of source material which went into his research.
“Dawn at Mineral King Valley” is available in cloth cover and electronic .pdf form from the University of Chicago Press.