In southern California, east of Los Angeles, where yellow tongues of smog lick the dusty feet of brown mountains, there is a rocky giant called Mt. San Gorgonio. It is 11,502 feet tall—a half a head higher than the other peaks flanking it in the San Bernardino range. By early spring, when most of the range and the crests of the adjacent San Gabriel range have lost their kiss of snow, big San Gorgonio often still shines white—the one true jewel of the lot. It is also the least spoiled today, because 34,718 acres of it above the 7,000-foot contour have been set aside by Congress as a wilderness area where there can be no road or building, or any use of land vehicles or planes.
San Gorgonio is a product of dramatic geologic faulting; in its upper faces there are vast cirques that were gored out long ago by glaciers. Although it is today, by law, supposedly a place of emptiness and little noise, for the past quarter century it has been a critical battleground. On and off since the late 1930s skiers have been trying to open up the San Gorgonio wilderness so that tows and lifts for downhill skiing might be built on its hoary upper slopes. As anyone might guess, all manner of conservationists and outdoorsmen have rallied to defend the wilderness against the ambitions of the skiers. It has been a peculiar battle. Both sides feel strongly on the matter, but even in the most crucial moments, there has been little uncontained anger. Indeed, the only thing that has been expended at all recklessly in the long fight has been talk.
The battle is, in fact, only worth considering at this time because, sooner or later, similar fights will break out in other areas. In the U.S. there have been many quarrels over land before, the miners, railroaders, loggers, cattlemen, sheepmen, farmers, industrialists, sportsmen all scrambling for a proper share. Now for the first time, on the high ground of San Gorgonio, we have sportsmen against sportsmen in a major fight.
The one real reason such a battle is taking place and that others will follow is that the U.S. population is becoming a burden. We are fast running out of room for working, decent living and playing. By present, crowded standards, almost all outdoor sports require an exorbitant amount of space—a large factory and housing enough for all its workers can be built in the same space needed by 18 men to play a game of baseball. In the U.S., east and west, there are wilderness tracts far larger and more precious than San Gorgonio, and there are other snowy mountains better for downhill skiing. San Gorgonio has become the first battleground of sportsmen simply because it is located near greater Los Angeles. In municipal Los Angeles and in the tangle of contiguous cities that lie with it under a blanket of smog, there are now more than 10 million people. The air they breathe on inversion days is only slightly better than the old foul breath of Pittsburgh. The particular virtue of the megalopolis is the complex of freeways by which ordinary men escape in their off time, some of them heading for the water, some for the deserts, some for the mountains, some for the ball parks and horse tracks, and many simply leaving home to find a louder jukebox playing a different tune.
In southern California getting away from home on Saturdays and Sundays has become a calculated act, a rite that must be observed, like attending the funeral of a distant cousin. Knowing that the beaches and the freeways leading to them are impossibly crowded on weekends, many people go to the mountains to the lesser of two crowds, as it were. In winter many "go to the snow," as they say, even when there is no snow. They often go to bare ski slopes simply to ride the chair lifts, to hike about, to breathe clean air and to gaze across at Palos Verdes and Catalina Island floating on the distant horizon.
Any New Englander reared in a cold, nubbly land where belly-flopping, ice-ball fights, tobogganing and bundling were taken for granted would be amazed to see the use southern Californians get out of a ski slope. If the slopes have any meager snow cover at all, the desperate Californians engage in what they call "snow play." For the benefit of old Down Easters who are not hep to modern recreational terms, by "snow play" a southern Californian means all the usual trivial, thrilling and dangerous pleasures of winter. For example, three weekends ago on the Mt. Baldy ski slopes, the highest in southern California, there were about four inches of intermittent glaze and slush on the upper reaches. Although all slopes were closed to skiers, the main chair lift still carried 1,800 snow players and sightseers to the 7,800-foot level. In this heavy traffic of nonskiers there were all ages—many family groups and collegians, and several packs of boy scouts and a busload of kids from the church of the Full Gospel Assembly of God. While most of the visitors were slowly lifted up the mountain on Saturday, at the base of the lift Greg Zemenek, 9, Steve Madison, 9, Ricky Traynor, 9, Dale Traynor, 8, and Darrell Traynor, 7—all of El Monte, Calif.—were battling with brown snowballs. It was not altogether clear who was siding with whom, but all five participants were carefully mixing one part mud to one part snow in their ammunition so that the sparse patches of slush would last for the duration of their small war.
While these small boys battled, in the main parking lot Darlene Bryan, age 10, of Santa Monica was weeping because her uncle would not let her put a three-foot snowman in the back seat of the car. Some families came to the slopes carrying garbage can tops, inner tubes, crate tops and air mattresses, and when denied access to the lift with such dangerous vehicles, they climbed part way up on foot and slid down tree-studded, rock-rubbled slopes that would have scared any sensible belly-flopper out of his wits. Morgan Adams Jr., one of the proprietors of Mt. Baldy—and one of the leading proponents of opening up San Gorgonio—noted that the snow players on this particular weekend were, all in all, a sane lot. Not one of them had torn down any of the warning signs (DANGER—Rolling Rocks—Icy—KEEP OFF) and used it as a toboggan as fun lovers have in the past. By the end of that particular weekend in the Mt. Baldy area there was only one hospital case and only four rescues, the most dramatic being the recovery of Dana Green, age 15, of Los Angeles, who somehow lost his footing and was found stuck in a bush 150 feet up an icy wall on Thunder Mountain.
On the January weekend when people were having such snowy fun around Mt. Baldy, only six of the 13 ski areas within 100 miles of Los Angeles were open for skiing, and all of these six were using artificial snow to supplement the meager natural fall. Only three of the areas had slopes of natural snow challenging enough for intermediate or expert skiers. On Sunday, by midafternoon, the biggest of these areas, Snow Summit, had 450 skiers lined up waiting 40 minutes for a turn on the lift. By the following weekend, the only natural runs open were those on Snow Summit. During the same period, above the 8,400-foot contour on San Gorgonio there was a foot of snow, and the conditions on the fiats and north slopes were good for recreational skiing.
Quite obviously, for skiing or for any kind of "snow play," Los Angeles needs more room and more reliable snow, and that is why the pressure is on the prize acreage atop San Gorgonio. After a number of smoldering years, the battle for San Gorgonio broke out again about three years ago when a group of southern California ski-lift operators petitioned the Forest Service to open up 3,500 acres between 8,000 and 11,000 feet (see map). Although the operators and skiers will argue the point forever, the 10% of the area that they want for trails, lifts, parking lots, restaurants and so forth is an important ecological part, used by cougar, bobcat, deer, bear and bighorn sheep. It is also, from the human point of view, the esthetic heart of the area.
While both houses of Congress were weighing a number of different wilderness measures during the past two years, both sides in the San Gorgonio fight took their causes before congressional committees, and ever since there has been a great outpouring of emotion, needless words and confusing figures. No one can surely say how many skiers there are in southern California, but one statistician opposing them claimed that there were 61,010 in 1963. The skiers variously estimate their own strength at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000. In any case, this means that there are still somewhere around 10 million people in the area who do not ski. According to the Forest Service, last year there were 53,900 visitors who rode horses or hiked into the wilderness (this total includes one lady pushing a perambulator and another carrying a straight-backed chair). This means that, despite the publicity the battle for the mountain has received in the local press, there were around 10 million people in the area who did not bother to visit the wild battleground.
In rash moments the defenders of San Gorgonio claim that the drive to open the wilderness to skiing is motivated by the commercial greed of ski-lift operators. In rash moments the skiers claim the defenders of the wilderness are selfishly keeping a precious area for a precious few. Both sides make much of the fact that the teeming populace trapped between the ocean and the mountains needs room for play. Some skiers claim they are ardent conservationists; some of the wilderness defenders claim they are ardent downhill skiers. In their nobler moments, the skiers lean heavily on the late President Kennedy's old pitch of vim and vigor. In their nobler moments the wilderness defenders fetch up the wisdom of old Henry Thoreau, pleading that city people need the tonic of wilderness to clear their addled heads and fortify their souls. (If granted new voice, old Henry probably would give both sides in the argument a verbal bashing because they have fouled their own nests and are now quarreling over a mountain 80 miles from the heart of town.)
When a workable wilderness bill was reported out of the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs last summer, it provided, in effect, that all wilderness areas in the country—a total of 8,234,000 acres—should remain as such except the 34,718 acres on San Gorgonio. The bill specifically slated that the Secretary of Agriculture should identify 3,500 acres of San Gorgonio that he considered suitable for installing skiing facilities and should then review the remaining acreage to see if it was worth holding as wilderness.
Although the skiers were at that moment close to victory, on the House floor all special consideration of San Gorgonio was stricken from the bill, and the area remained as wilderness. Twenty-eight California Congressmen voted to keep the wilderness; seven voted to open up part of it to skiing. Much of the eloquent defense of San Gorgonio came from Congressmen of midwestern and eastern states where there is no land tied up in wilderness and relatively little held in any kind of trust for all the people. On the floor of Congress, as in the Committee hearings, there were many words wasted. The words most worth remembering were spoken late in the argument by Representative John Kyl of Iowa. "One of the difficulties in writing legislation such as this," Representative Kyl said, "is the deep emotion that is felt, the deep emotion which destroys logic. I am interested in this single proposition solely because it represents and dramatizes the kind of selection which is going to have to be made every single time we establish any kind of preserve or recreation area from this point on. How do we best use the land which is available? Now, we get a lot of malarkey here which ought to be completely discounted by each member of the House." Congressman Kyl concluded: "The only question which we have before us here is one which must be satisfied on the basis of logical thought: How can we best use this particular area? Do we use it as a wilderness area or as a mass recreation area?"
Through the whole argument the skiers have stressed one strong, logical point of the sort Congressman Kyl seeks. There is no doubt that if the high ground of San Gorgonio were opened up to skiing, the area would get far greater use than it does now. The sport of skiing flourishes in the U.S. wherever there are slopes, lifts and reliable snow close to heavily populated areas. On their side the skiers have the old and often valid doctrine of the greatest good for the greatest number. But weighed against this are two equally logical considerations. First, the American wilderness is disappearing, and we grieve already at its passing. Second, as soberly put in a committee hearing by a geologist named Barclay Kamb, "It is argued that the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number compels development because the downhill skiing facilities would attract so many more people than presently visit the area in its wilderness state. This claim takes us back to the basic question of values at the heart of wilderness preservation. It is like arguing that we should convert our churches to roller-skating rinks because that would get the attendance up."
The battle for San Gorgonio will continue—that is the only thing certain about its future. As long as the mountain is wild, it will have defenders, and as long as it shines with snow in winter, there will be skiers wanting it.
The dependable snow of Mt. San Gorgonio's high north-facing slopes is an irresistible lure to southern California skiers, who are struggling to get in.
Ski slopes near Los Angeles, like Ski-the-Rim (above), count heavily on "custom-made" snow.
The section of San Gorgonio that skiers covet is about 100 road miles from the center of Los Angeles. At present, when the local ski areas around Mt. Baldy and Big Bear Lake lack snow, southern Californians must drive 320 miles to Mammoth Mountain in the High Sierra.
Big Bear Lake
THE SAN GORGONIO
PROPOSED SKI AREA
San Gorgonio Peak