The Allocation and Distribution of Resources

In a course I teach on environmental ethics, I ask students to read the opinion of the Supreme Court in Sierra Club v. Morton.1 This case involves an environmentalist challenge to a decision by the U.S. Forest Service to lease the Mineral King Valley, a quasi-wilderness area in the middle of Sequoia National Park, to Walt Disney Enterprises to develop a ski resort. But let the Court describe the facts:

The final Disney plan... outlines a $35 million complex of motels, restaurants, swimming pools, parking lots, and other structures designed to accommodate 14,000 visitors daily Other facilities, including ski lifts, ski trails, a cog-assisted railway, and utility installations, are to be constructed on the mountain slopes and in other parts of the valley To provide access to the resort, the State of California proposes to construct a highway 20 miles in length. A section of this road would traverse Sequoia National Park, as would a proposed high-voltage power line.2

I asked how many of the students had visited Mineral King or thought they would visit it as long as it remained undeveloped. There were about six hands. Why so few? Too many mosquitoes, someone said. No movies, said another. Another offered to explain in scrupulous detail the difference between chilblain and trench foot. These young people came from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. They were not eager to subsist, for any length of time, on pemmican and rye biscuits.

Then I asked how many students would like to visit the Mineral King Valley if it were developed in the way Disney planned. A lot more hands went up. Someone wanted to know if he had to ski if he went. No; I told him if he stayed indoors, he need miss nothing. He could get snow blindness from the sour cream. He could meet Ms. Right at the apres-ski sauna and at encounter sessions. The class got really excited.

Two students in the back of the room stood on tiptoe, bent their wrists, and leaned forward, as if to ski. I hope I have left no doubt about where the consumer interests of these young people lay.

I brought the students to order by asking if they thought the government was right in giving Disney Enterprises a lease to develop Mineral King. I asked them, in other words, whether they thought that environmental policy, at least in this instance, should be based on the principle of satisfying consumer demand. Was there a connection between what the students as individuals wanted for themselves and what they thought we should do, collectively, as a nation?

The response was nearly unanimous. The students believed that the Disney plan was loathsome and despicable, that the Forest Service had violated a public trust by approving it, and that the values for which we stand as a nation compel us to preserve the little wilderness we have for its own sake and as a heritage for future generations. On these ethical and cultural grounds, and in spite of their consumer preferences, the students opposed the Disney plan to develop Mineral King.

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