Fore! on the Inyo National Forest

  • COMING SOON: Golfers and their ORV

    Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau photo

For the first time in its history, the U.S. Forest Service says a golf course will be built on agency land.

The owners of the Snow Creek golf course in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., have a permit to turn 95 acres of sagebrush on the Inyo National Forest into a "back nine," despite the opposition of the Sierra Club and some national-level agency officials, who fear this expansion will set a dangerous precedent. Other golf courses do exist on Forest Service land, but they were acquired through land trades or were built unknowingly on agency land, and then permitted.

The Mammoth Lakes proposal has followed a tortuous route from the Inyo National Forest, to court, to the chief of the Forest Service, to a national committee he appointed, and now back to the Inyo National Forest. With construction set to begin this spring, both environmentalists and Forest Service critics may have run out of options.

Local Forest Service staffers are determined that the Snow Creek golf course will be built. An expanded golf course will help the Mammoth Lakes economy, says Bob Hawkins, project leader for the Forest Service. He explains that the town is a "landlocked" community, with very little private land, and local business people want to use what private land exists for intensive commercial and residential development - not recreation. "When appropriate, we try to support the goals of the town," he says.

Hawkins acknowledges the agency usually prohibits "urban recreation," such as bowling alleys and golf courses, on public land. But, he says, agency policy allows these projects when they are part of a larger, four-season resort complex, such as a ski area. Because the golf course expansion is part of Dempsey Construction Co." s Snow Creek Resort, he says, it should be permitted.

The resort, however, is on private land, and Forest Service officials in Washington, D.C., have said agency policy allows urban recreation projects only when the associated resort is built on Forest Service land. This interpretation has been the basis of appeals from environmental groups.

The controversy began in 1991, when former Inyo National Forest supervisor Dennis Martin first approved the golf course expansion. Environmentalists appealed, and the approval was overturned on the grounds that, at the time, only the chief of the Forest Service could approve urban recreation projects. As a result of the court ruling, the golf course proposal ended up in the office of then-Chief Jack Ward Thomas.

According to Janet Kurman, who was a national recreation specialist for the Forest Service at the time, Thomas appointed a committee of national-level staffers to review the Snow Creek proposal. Following the group's recommendations, the chief wrote to Dempsey Construction and Inyo Supervisor Martin in August 1994.

Thomas' letter said the golf course expansion was inconsistent with Forest Service policy because it was not connected to a resort on agency land. In a second letter, sent to the regional forester in May 1995, the chief said the decision should be made at the local supervisor's level. But opposition from above did not kill the project. In June 1997, Martin gave Snow Creek the green light once again.

In August 1997, the Sierra Club appealed the plan a second time, arguing that Forest Service policy does not permit "stand alone" golf courses on agency land. In October, the regional forester denied the appeal, but agreed with the group in principle. He said Dempsey can lease public land for the golf course, but only as part of the ski area the company also proposes to build on adjacent Forest Service land.

Although the agency has not yet approved the new ski area, the expansion of the course is still scheduled to proceed. If the ski area is approved, the golf course will fall in line with national policy as a part of a resort on Forest Service land. If the ski area permit is turned down, the Inyo National Forest will satisfy the regional forester's condition by trading the golf course land to Dempsey.

Sierra Club members say they're concerned that the golf course expansion will set a developer-friendly precedent for the Forest Service. Andy Selters, a member of the local Sierra Club group, says that Dempsey should be required to use available private land for the expansion rather than lease public land for a fraction of the land's value. "Recreation is going to be the new thing," says Selters, "and this is the type of recreation we have to be concerned about."

Hawkins remains undeterred by the controversy: "As soon as the snow melts, (Dempsey) will be in a position to break ground."

* Michelle Nijhuis, HCN intern

You can contact ...

* Inyo National Forest 760/ 873-2400

* Sierra Club Range of Light Group rolgroup or P.O. Box 1973, Mammoth Lakes, CA 93546

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