A half-million abandoned mines litter the American West, many dribbling poisons into rivers and streams. But after more than a century of healing, one such place is poised to become one of America's newest wilderness areas. It's a testament to the resilience of nature and the vision of the people who fought to preserve it.
The place is Mineral King, a spectacular valley in the southern Sierra Nevada range of California. In January 2009, it was included in a bill the Senate passed protecting nearly 30 million acres of federal land, about 2 million of it as new wilderness areas. The House is expected to follow suit before the Presidents' Day holiday.
In the 19th century, miners swarmed over Mineral King, searching for silver. They dug shafts, built smelters and cabins and improved an old wagon trail in anticipation of heavy traffic to come. But harsh winters, frequent avalanches and difficult economics turned the boom to bust within a few years. By 1882, the workings were abandoned.
Eight years later, Congress created both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, but Mineral King, a finger of land jutting into Sequoia from the south, was left out because of the leavings of industrialization. In 1908, Mineral King was put under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, and in 1926, it became the Sequoia National Game Refuge.
Though Mineral King wasn't a national park, hikers, fishermen, campers and others made it one of the most popular recreation spots in the Sierra. In 1965, when Walt Disney -- yes, that Walt Disney -- proposed to build a ski resort as big as Sun Valley at Mineral King, the Sierra Club vowed to stop him.
Major forces lined up in support of the resort, including the Forest Service, the Park Service, the state of California (Ronald Reagan, governor), and boostering local newspapers. Eventually, the club sought relief in the federal courts, a bold stroke that had been tried rarely and without much success up to that time.
The Sierra Club filed suit in San Francisco in June 1969, and Judge William Sweigert immediately blocked the development of the resort. The Forest Service appealed, and first an appellate court and then the Supreme Court found that the Sierra Club had not proved that its members would be harmed by the resort. That meant it had no "standing to sue." But the Supreme Court left the door ajar, writing in a footnote that if the club wanted to amend the case and try again, it might prevail.
The club went straight back to Judge Sweigert with declarations from many members who used Mineral King for various recreational activities; again, Sweigert blocked the resort. By this time, Congress had also enacted the National Environmental Policy Act, and Disney, faced with the prospect of a lengthy environmental impact study, threw in the towel.
Just as important as the protection of a lovely valley was the precedent set through the lawsuit. The case confirmed the right of citizens to seek the help of the federal judiciary when any public resource -- land, air, water, wildlife -- came under threat. It established that Americans don't have to have an economic interest to have the legal right to get involved in protecting special places or stopping pollution; we all have an interest in keeping open space open, or in breathing clean air.
Since the Supreme Court's Mineral King decision (Sierra Club v. Morton) in 1974, fishermen, hunters, scientists, outfitters and others have filed hundreds of suits that have saved places in America threatened by inappropriate development. This litigation, frequently attacked by mining companies, livestock growers, timber operators and others, has, in fact, been a terrific force for good and preserved millions of acres of precious land for our grandchildren.
Some of the more prominent examples include Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, which nearly got a coal strip mine on its doorstep. The Kaiparowits Plateau, also in Utah, was destined for a strip mine and on-site power plant, but is now protected within Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Yellowstone National Park very nearly had a gold-silver-copper mine plunked in a high basin just outside its border. And throughout the interior West, the air is far cleaner than it would have been had not careful and thoughtful litigation stopped a raft of coal mines and power plants that would have seriously polluted the air and hampered visibility.
Long live Mineral King. Long live the wilderness.
Tom Turner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is editor at large for Earthjustice, the environmental law firm based in Oakland, California.