Wilderness Access Defended in Mammoth

Mammoth Lakes, California – Wednesday, February 1, 2006 was a red-letter day for public access to the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada range. On that day, the Town Council of Mammoth Lakes voted to overturn their earlier decision to “vacate” a small strip of public road that had been the closest thing Mammoth residents had to a public pedestrian access point along the land locked southern border of town. This small strip of land has been a key link in a public access chain that has been used for decades by snowboarders and backcountry skiers coming out of the Sherwins, a mountainous ridge in the Inyo National Forest just south of town.

For many years, the Sherwins have seemed destined to become yet another lift access ski resort – permits had been pulled, handsome plaster models fashioned. But with no lift service on the horizon, the Sherwins are still today what they have always been – a north facing “candy store” of wild snow and backcountry goods, one of the best ski town “local pokes” anywhere in the continental US. This victory came about because of the hard work of a handful of Mammoth residents who insisted on holding the town to its word – that a private “vehicular” gate built over a public right of way to deal with a parking problem would not exclude public pedestrian access.

This issue erupted quickly. On December 7, 2005, a resolution of the Mammoth Lakes Town Council to abandon a public right of way on Ranch Road was passed. This “vacation” had been combined with a previous resolution to construct a gate on Ranch Road to benefit members of the Fairway Ranch Homeowner's Association and the Ranch at Snowcreek Homeowner's Association. The “vehicular” gate – constructed last fall – was built to prevent people from parking their cars while skiing, snow-boarding or hiking up in the Sherwins.

Despite assurances from town staff that there would be an easement for public access, despite the design of the gate itself which encourages pedestrian access, despite numerous testimonials in public forums and in private discussions that the gate is intended only to control vehicular traffic, the resolution to vacate the public right of way was recorded without an easement for public access.

Into the breach stepped Mammoth residents, including John Wentworth and Hans Ludwig, backcountry skiers who had not opposed the construction of the gate as long as public pedestrian access was not inhibited. Braving a New Year's weekend blizzard that shut down the city, and with only two weeks remaining in a 30 day statute of limitations window, John and his friends collected more than 800 signatures, almost a quarter of the Town’s registered voting population, enough to force the Town Council to either rescind their decision or put the item before the voters.

On Wednesday, February 1, 2006 the Town Council voted unanimously (5-0) to:

1) Rescind their original resolution vacating the public right of way on Ranch Road.
2) Permit the vehicular gate to continue to operate under a special use permit from the town.
3) Convene a committee of residents and interested parties to study and submit proposals to address the public access issues along the entire land locked southern boundary of Mammoth Lakes.

With this victory in hand, the citizens of Mammoth Lakes have made their feelings clear, and are eagerly engaged in seeking long term solutions to their public access problems.

For more information about the ongoing activities on this topic, contact John Wentworth at durt@pacbell.net.