Mammoth Mountain Ski Area’s land exchange bill, HR1241, passed the Senate as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on Friday, December 12, and President Obama is expected to sign the bill into legislation any day.
The land exchange bill provides certain variances to the Land Exchange Act and will facilitate a land trade of over 1,500 acres of public and private property in various counties in exchange for approximately 21 acres of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land surrounding Mammoth Mountain Inn.
“Last Friday’s passage of the Main Lodge land exchange by the Senate paves the way for completion of the trade and the complete redevelopment of the Mammoth Mountain Inn and adjacent base lodge facilities,” said MMSA CEO Rusty Gregory. “This approval culminates years of effort by MMSA staff and our Congressional delegation. All this and snow too. I couldn’t be more excited. It’s time to start rebuilding Mammoth!”
The bill allows two pieces of property in the Owens Valley that are not adjacent to any USFS land to be included in the trade. The USFS leases the maintenance yard in Bishop and a parcel just below the Lone Pine Visitors Center from Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and specifically asked MMSA to include them in the bill.
“Sometimes it takes a lot of land to trade for a little,” said Ron Cohen CAO of MMSA.
One of the bill variances, a cash equilization option, will allow MMSA to offer, and the USFS to accept, any amount of cash in order to balance out the equal-value of the land exchange.
In 2005, MMSA purchased 100 acres of property west of Mono Lake, after the owner applied to subdivide the property. MMSA has several other parcels around the state, like this one, which it is paying the owners not to sell. These lands have been identified by the USFS as “lands of high resource value,” Cohen said.
In order for the exchange to go through, escrow on all the different properties will close at the same time. “That’s what makes it so complicated,” Cohen said. “A hiccup with one property can throw the whole thing off. With the cash equalization option, if something happens with one piece of property we can just drop it and bring cash.”
Cohen is hopeful the land exchange will be completed in 12-18 months. “We’re optimists. If you’re in the ski business and you’re not an optimist you’re in trouble,” he said.
But USFS District Ranger John Regelbrugge couldn’t comment on an exact timeline, as the specifics of the trade haven’t been looked at for several years while the bill was trying to pass Congress. Plus, up to this point the public hasn’t been involved in the process. Once President Obama signs the bill into law, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process will start, analyzing the impact of the exchange of itself.
“It’s hard to forecast a process involving the public and their concerns, issues, and conflict,” Regelbrugge said. But he emphasized the importance of public involvement during the NEPA process as “the public brings to our attention things we don’t already know.”
Regelbrugge did voice support for the land exchange. “The lands we acquire will certainly be good additions to natural resource preservation and it’s in the public interest to move forward,” he said.
The land around Mammoth Mountain Inn and Main Lodge is “fully encumbered with Ski Area infrastructure,” he said. As Cohen put it, “What’s the forest value of a parking lot and buildings? It’s never going to be forest again.”
“It’s pretty rare to have a ski area hotel on Forest Service land. It’s kind of a remnant of a bygone era,” Cohen continued. Acquiring large-scale financing on land MMSA doesn’t own for redevelopment of the Inn and Main Lodge, built in 1958, necessitates the land trade. The Mountain has said it plans to demolish the Inn and update the surrounding buildings as soon as possible, although specific plans on the design and scope of the project are yet to be discussed.
“It’s one of the most exciting opportunities in the North American ski industry,” Cohen said. “What could soon be private land to be developed at 9,000 feet at the base of what is universally recognized as a world-class ski mountain. That’s pretty rare. It’s a great opportunity for the community.”
Although the process is far from over, “We already did the hard part,” Cohen said. There’s nothing that is more difficult to do than getting a law passed.”
Republican Congressman Paul Cook drafted the land exchange bill and Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein introduced it to the Senate and pushed it through the Energy Committee, while Republican Senator Buck McKeon, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, was crucial in attaching it to the NDAA, which undoubtedly assures its passing.
The NDAA is federal law passed every year specifying the budget for the Department of Defense and national security programs and includes the continued military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the new actions targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Several other more controversial land exchanges were also passed as part of the NDAA, including a 2,400 parcel of land in Arizona, known to be sacred to Native Americans.