The Independence Lake Ski Resortby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I have always had a fascination for Disney projects that were announced, involved a significant investment of time, labor and money and yet, for a variety of reasons, were never completed. Previously, I have written about the Disney Company's plans to build a ski resort in Mineral King, California, that was one of Walt Disney's last dreams.
When those plans for an elaborate ski resort became in increasing jeopardy due to legal battles over environmental concerns and increasing costs, Disney consulted with the U.S. Forest Service on December 11, 1971, that recommended four other possible locations for such a venue.
Disney found especially appealing private land at Independence Lake, north of Lake Tahoe and did an on-site inspection. It was located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains 6,900 feet above sea level approximately 13 miles northwest of Truckee, California.
Like the plans for Mineral King, the ski resort was to be family oriented, as well as a year-round operation offering not just winter sports opportunities but summer experiences including camping and fishing.
Alpine Meadows operator Peter Kalussen and ski champion Willy Schaeffler (who had helped develop the ski runs for the Mineral King project) surveyed the area and identified intermediate and beginner slopes. The lake was 2.5 miles long and half a mile wide and surrounded by mountains. It was planned to be a 15 acre village located on the northeastern portion of the lake.
Kalussen remembered, "It had all the makings of a tremendous resort. Everything funneled back to the lake. Having the land privately owned was a huge enticement because, as a result, federal permits weren't needed to develop the property."
Interestingly, the Sierra Club and the Disney organization agreed to cooperate early on the project in order to try to avoid the previous environmental objections to Disney developing such an enterprise in Mineral King. Officially, the Sierra Club took "no position" on the project during its years of development.
The Independence Lake-Mt. Lola venture was started by Disney in 1972 and Disney announced its intention to build a family "destination resort" to the Sierra County Board of Supervisors in July 1974.
Disney's press release from July 16, 1974 stated:
"The U.S. Forest Service and Nevada County have designated the Independence Lake - Mt. Lola area as being appropriate for recreational development.
"The development of the Independence Lake - Mt. Lola area for year-round outdoor family recreational use will help meet the public need in California for well-planned and well-managed recreation destinations.
"The area represents the opportunity for developing its attractive outdoor recreation potential (camping, hiking, skiing, etc.) without harmful impact on the present environment.
"Its development will open up for public use, lands that have been used predominantly for private purposes, and should help to prevent further overcrowding of and reduce pressures on the Lake Tahoe basin.
"During the last century, the lands in this area have been extensively used for logging and mining activities. Every natural resource in the area has been utilized except the recreational resource.
"The master plan will be based on an environmental analysis and the Forest Service land capability study. The history and nature of the area tells us that it is ideally suited for recreational use. The land and environmental studies will tell us exactly where facilities should be located and what levels of development will be appropriate.
"The project will offer to the public a wide range of outdoor recreational activities, both summer and winter. The extent and location of these facilities will be determined as we proceed with our land use planning. Basic to the concept, of course, would be a village to serve as a focal point for the recreational activities and which would offer the service required by recreational visitors.
"The project would also contemplate accommodations, summer camping areas, trails for hiking and horseback riding, and winter sports facilities. The Disney organization is committed to providing recreational opportunities to families and individuals representing a wide range of income.
"It is our plan to have a village designed with an architecturally consistent theme to complement the recreational atmosphere and opportunities of the area, offering a variety of facilities to meet the needs of vacationing families. It will be a village free of automobile traffic -- uniquely American and based on the historical significance of the area.
"Initial studies indicate that more than 90% of this area will remain in its natural state. The necessary precautions will be outlined in the environmental analysis.
"Soil investigations will determine building sites. The Disney organization will take the responsibility for installing sewerage treatment systems that will meet federal and state standards. Disney will establish an Environmental Protection Department to safeguard water quality and other environmental considerations. Water and electricity will be provided by the participating public utility, Sierra Pacific Power.
"Access will be by an improved existing road extending approximately five miles from State Highway 89. The state highway is designated as a scenic highway. Therefore, secondary development between Truckee and the project will be tightly controlled by law, thus preserving aesthetic values.
"So far as traffic is concerned, the heavier amount is expected in summer, and present state highways are fully capable. It is a significant consideration that in a destination resort of the type we envision, a substantial number of guests come by means other than automobile, stay several days, and generally do not travel during peak periods.
"No aspect of the recreational project will be visible from the scenic highway, and opportunities exist to select a village site from which skiing would not be visible.
"The Independence Lake -- Mt. Lola project will result in increased economic activity in the area, increased employment, and an increased tax base to the two California counties involved.
"The economic contributions to the surrounding communities are being studied in depth, and the findings from these studies will be incorporated in our planning. We are aware that additional housing, schools, and other services will be required. We will work with the local agencies on meeting such requirements.
"So far as the cost of additional community services is concerned, we see tax revenues generated by this project as providing more than adequate compensation, and all likelihood adding significantly to each jurisdiction's resources."
Obviously the planning that had gone into the Mineral King project were being incorporated into this proposal. It was a limited partnership with Southern Pacific Land Company and a subsidiary of the Sierra Pacific Power Company.
Disney would be the general and operating partner, while Southern Pacific Land Company and the Sierra Pacific Power Company were limited partners. Southern Pacific would contribute 7,300 acres and Sierra Pacific would contribute 2,200 acres, only a small fraction of which would be involved in actual development.
That land alternated in a "checkerboard" type pattern with adjacent sections owned by the United States Forest Service. Disney proposed to the Forest Service a program of land exchanges which would consolidate the project area in private ownership while transferring to public ownership a selection of highly prized and environmentally sensitive lands in the Sierra and Nevada County regions.
Basically, Disney wanted unified control and authority over the land that would be used for the resort.
The Forest Service refused to consider the offer until it conducted an extensive land capability study covering both the private and public lands, entitled "The Little Truckee River Basin Study," that wasn't to be completed until around 1975. So Disney decided not to file its official Environmental Impact Statement until the land exchange was completed but still continued with its development plans.
In 1975, roughly 300 people filled the Tahoe-Truckee High School auditorium for a preview of the Disney plans. Several young people picketed outside with signs like "Don't Mickey Mouse Sierra County." The reaction to the presentation was mixed. While some welcomed the expected economic benefits, others were fearful of the sudden growth that would result.
A brief description of the proposed resort appeared in the 1977 Walt Disney Productions annual report:
"Visitor facilities, both winter and summer, will be concentrated at the northeast end of this magnificent two-and-one-half mile long lake. Here will be located a 21-acre pedestrian oriented visitor village, lodging units, restaurants, guest services, campgrounds, and base operations for both winter and summer recreational programs…
"The area offers some of the finest beginning and intermediate ski terrain to be found anywhere in America, with runs emanating from elevations up to 9,100 feet. The terrain is ideally suited for family skiing groups, which will be an essential part of the Disney market."
Disney created a scale model of the proposed complex and the cost for building the area rose to an estimated $100 million dollars. Those plans included restaurant seating for 1,600 people, nine merchandise stores, and 55,000 square feet of service area in the village alone.
Recreational facilities were to include a large theater-conference area, an ice rink, a spa and pool, twelve tennis courts, several fishing lakes, an equestrian center, year round "swimming experiences", snow mobiles, a car care center, boats and other equipment.
The resort would have had enough accommodation space for 2,900 guests each evening during the winter and 3,400 guests per night in the summer, taking into account the additional summer camping units.
It was estimated that the site would be able to host up to 10,800 guests per day during the peak winter ski season with an estimated 1,800,000 visitors filtering through the facilities annually. Disney intended to hire 1,000 cast members initially to staff the location.
Thomas L. Kimball, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation and a member of the Disney Conservation Advisory Committee stated, "If Disney continues its usual fine job in preventing damage to wildlife values and scenic vales, the proposed facility for outdoor education as well as recreation opportunities will be a tremendous asset to the community and the nation."
The area was outside the Lake Tahoe Basin and would relieve pressure on any more development in Tahoe that was already experiencing over development. Disney executive Card Walker expected the resort to be open in 1978 if there were no obstacles or delays.
The first obstacle was that the Forest Service informed Disney that the land use plan would now not be completed until end of May 1976, nearly 18 months after originally promised, at the earliest and the probable date of an actual land exchange could not be expected until late 1978 or early 1979. The Forest Service wanted to be assured that a land exchange would be in the public interest and meet the requirements of the exchange authority.
Concerns included additional traffic on Interstate 89, air and water quality, water rights and public services. In addition, they wanted to explore the impact on the wildlife including on the endangered species of the Lahontan cutthroat trout (the state fish of Nevada and one of three subspecies of cutthroat trout that are listed as threatened). As these studies dragged on, local opposition to the project grew despite the enticements of added jobs and tax revenues.
A local group, the Sierra County Conservation Club was especially vocal, and even filed a lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company and the Sierra County Board of Supervisors. A U.S. Federal court judge ruled that no Federal rights had been violated. The Club aggressively orchestrated a negative publicity program.
Disney was still hopeful that they could begin groundbreaking in the spring of 1979 with the first facilities being opened to guests by the winter of 1981-1982 to coincide with the opening of Epcot Center on the east coast.
In October 1977, Disney stated:
"The Company culminated more than three years of environmental and engineering studies and master planning by filing with Sierra County and the United States Forest Service its Environmental Assessment Report, thereby beginning the formal Environmental Impact Statement process with the federal, state and local agencies.
"There are no assurances at this time that this administrative process, which could take up to eighteen months, will ultimately result in governmental approval for the project."
During the summer of 1977, Disney held multiple meetings with Sierra County officials and various representatives from state agencies that could issue and approve permits. Disney was getting tired of all the delays that were adding significantly to the project's costs.
Disney even made an appeal to Governor Jerry Brown to get involved in the hopes it might help cut through some of the process. While Brown met with all parties involved, he took no position.
In January 1978, individual agencies represented on the state task force for Independence Lake project suggested alternatives, as required by law, to the Disney proposal. These included no project at all, a project for winter use only and a project with village facilities away from the proposed site at Independence Lake with Disney building a monorail to ferry people to and from the location.
On March 8, 1978, Disney project manager Wing Chao appeared before the Sierra County Planning Commission and announced, "Walt Disney Productions would like to state for the record that until we are assured of a positive, responsive and responsible attitude and action plan by all the agencies involved to meet the previously agreed upon conditions and timetables for the Independence Lake project, we are suspending all operations and expenditures of funds relative to the project."
According to the Los Angeles Times on March 22, 1978:
"Even if Disney had a favorable Environmental Impact Study in hand—and none is in sight—it still could not proceed without the additional approval of nine state agencies, ranging from the Department of Fish and Game to the Public Utilities Commission. But Disney officials were never told which agencies had jurisdiction, and did not find out until new 'demands were made on them by still another entity of government.'
"Disney project manager Wing Chao accused the state (of California) of trying to sabotage the development. Far from expediting its process, state agencies sniped at the development, resulting in delays that cost the company a year or more of development time, Chao said, and Disney could tolerate it no further."
For instance, when Chao requested information on the latest requirements for filing an application with Sierra County, the county's director of planning, Tim Beals, explained that no definition of a completed application existed and that the decision rested at the discretion of the county.
Later the Department of Fish and Game claimed that Disney's application was "clearly inadequate" and offered "no significant alternatives so there is no room for negotiation".
The Los Angeles Times called it a "Mickey Mouse Permit Process" and sided with Disney completely. Disney spent five years in development and study, and more than two million dollars, but never produced anything on the site and withdrew its application for governmental permission to construct the resort.
Some blamed bureaucratic obstructionism while others claimed that Disney was trying to shortcut the required processes. Whatever the reason, the project was abandoned completely and Disney never attempted to build another ski resort project ever again.