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.