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MINERAL KING VALLEY in the southern Sierra Nevada epitomizes the conflict involving conservationists, private industry, and government. Despite what seem to be similar ideas as to how nature should be treated, a bitter controversy has arisen over the future of the valley. Walt Disney Productions proposes to build a $35 million ski and tourist resort at Mineral King, an approach to conservation enthusiastically supported by the U.S. Forest Service, which administers the valley. The major opponent of the development is the Sierra Club, the nation’s most prominent conservation group. The Club is certain that such a development would ruin the valley.

The controversy has been intensifying for almost seven years, replete with all the tactics and strategies that customarily attend such matters: claims, charges, counterclaims, objections, and a “class action” suit. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by the Sierra Club, passed through a Federal Appeals Court, and is now on appeal to the Supreme Court. The Court heard oral arguments in the case last November and is expected to make a ruling early this year.

The ruling may well be a landmark. It could determine whether conservation groups and other citizens’ organizations, even though not directly involved, are eligible to challenge the vast range of federal policies and actions affecting the environment. Laws protecting the environment are often inadequate or are not enforced. If judicial challenges to the decisions of federal agencies and officials are unsuccessful—or are not even permitted—then the conservationists will have nowhere to turn, and the great ado will have been meaningless.

Underlying the Mineral King controversy, and others like it, are the loud, angry, emotional differences over which should come first, environment or the economy. Those concerned on both sides of the issue use identical arguments to support their positions: We are doing this because we think it right and beneficial, because we think our actions will benefit our society and enhance the quality of life for all classes of people. But only in their statements of intent and professions of altruism do the two sides agree.