Wax On, Wax Off: Mammoth Mountain is a Northern Outpost of Southern California

Last week's storms brought the mountains to life for snowboarders all over Southern California. With well over 14 inches at local spots like Baldy, Mountain High and Bear, people grabbed their boards and headed for higher altitudes.

Mammoth Mountain, the southern part of the state's proudest and biggest snowboarding destination, sent out a “special dump alert,” which is a lot less disgusting than it sounds. TheĀ  Dec. 12 report alerted, “3 feet in 2 days! Still dumping! Mammoth is getting pounded with snow right now! . . . and 3 more feet expected in the next 2 days!”

Those are happy words for the many thousands of Southern California skiers and boarders who make trips to Mammoth each winter. The place is in the rugged eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, a place that is as famous for its strange geology as it is for its snow. The park at Mammoth and the improvements that have steadily been made over the last couple of decades have truly made it a snowboarder's dream.

But the big question is: Why is Mammoth so often listed as a Southern California spot, when its latitude on a map more closely parallels the NorCal cities of Stockton and Modesto? The answer lies in a long and controversial history involving the snows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the long, fertile cleft known as the Owens Valley.

The Access
A major reason Mammoth is often referenced as a Southern California spot is that virtually no freeway access connects the population centers of NorCal to the snowy slopes of the southeastern Sierras. Heading out of the counties of the Los Angeles basin, travelers can either choose to travel northeast via the 14, catching the 395 near Ridgecrest, or first move east via the 15, linking up with the 395 in Victorville.

Defying, as Californians often seem to do, the conventional dividing lines between liberal and conservative politics, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan honored persistent requests by advisers, close friends and a diverse Sierra Club-led coalition to close the Sierra Nevada to any further development of east-west roads and thoroughfares. The decision was one of the last actions he took in the state's highest executive office. “A high-speed, trans-Sierra highway between the John Muir and Minarets wilderness areas long had been the dream of Central Valley interests,” recalled a 1997 article. But it was Ronald Reagan to the rescue, utilizing his special pull with the federal government at the time.

As Los Angeles Times reporter George Skelton put it, “the governor rode to a meadow beneath the Minaret Summit, dismounted and announced that he had persuaded the Nixon administration not to build the highway's planned initial leg. . . . That day, Reagan waxed on about 'this spectacular setting' and how a mini-freeway 'would do irreparable harm to the wilderness beauty and wildlife . . . the wolverine, deer, bear, mountain lion. . . .'”

To this day, skiers, snowboarders, fishermen and all manner of mountain-goers from Frisco and the other NorCal metro areas consider the Tahoe area their primary snowy clime. Limited access to the southern Sierras, especially in winter, ensures the continuity of this separation between north and south.

But even this decision perhaps had its roots in a much longer and darker history characterized by Southern Californians' determination, at all costs, to conquer and possess the resources of the Owens Valley and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Conquest
Like elsewhere in California, the history of the native peoples of the Owens Valley was stained with blood as white military, miners, settlers and farmers moved into the area. Bloody battles were waged against the Paiute Indians there, and the population was soon reduced and confined to reservations. The area's rich mineral resources drew national attention as miners set up rough, lawless camps throughout the mountains and valleys. But the most precious and contentious treasure of all turned out to be none other than the seemingly abundant snow crowning the mountains.

The tragic episode commonly known as the “Water Wars” was essentially an aggressive business strategy and political policy undertaken by the city of Los Angeles early in the 20th to gain access to water rights in the long north-south running Owens Valley. The watersheds of the valley drain snowmelt from hundreds of miles of mountain ranges, pushing a huge supply of water south via the Owens River.

The city of LA, allegedly in conjunction with shadowy business and political figures from SoCal, aggressively bought land from Owens Valley farmers while keeping secret their master plan to build an aqueduct. In a few short years, the vast and heavily trafficked saline body of water called Owens Lake was dried down to a white alkali bed on the desert floor. The green valley with its willow-lined streams and rich farming soil was reduced to a barren, rocky place covered with salt grasses. But the snowmelt of the mountains continued to feed the aqueduct. LA grew even more ambitious, extending the aqueduct project northward, pumping water even from the distant Mono Basin, and drilling scores of deepwater wells to tap the aquifers under the valley's volcanic bed.

Despite the best efforts of the southern powers that be, the project has never been without resistance. Stories abound of farmers and locals conducting raids to blow the aqueduct with dynamite and release the water onto the valley floor. Local courts and governments have entangled themselves in decades-long legal battles to regain the melted snow . . .

Next time: The Hero . . . The Expansion . . . The New War

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