WHEN poet Michelle Berditschevsky travels up Everitt Memorial Highway on her way to the heights of Mt. Shasta, she sees ``a natural wonder,'' ``a sacred mountain,'' a silent wonderland that speaks to her of nature's mysteries. When Carl Martin gazes up at the same mountain, he envisions three ski lodges, seven chairlifts, happy skiers, and prosperity for the community that clings to the snowy skirt at Mt. Shasta's base. These differing perspectives have created a classic environmentalist-developer confrontation, which has been brewing for years here in California's northland.
Mr. Martin's proposal to build a recreational ski area on Mt. Shasta has generated so much controversy - including a recent appeal by the state attorney general - that it is being likened to the famous California battle two decades ago over the alpine valley of Mineral King. (In that case, the Sierra Club prevailed over plans by Walt Disney Productions to build a multimillion-dollar ski resort near Sequoia National Park in the Sierra Nevadas of central California.)
As with Mineral King, the United States Forest Service (USFS) again is the pivotal government agency in the dispute. Because the proposed Mt. Shasta Ski Area would sit on 1,290 acres of national forest land, the agency for six years has labored to complete an adequate assessment of the project's environmental impact. Now that the final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has cleared the way for the ski area, the USFS is swathed deeper in appeals than Mt. Shasta is in snow.
While the outcome is of intense interest to the local citizens, people here on both sides recognize that much more is at stake than the future of one ski development on one scenic California mountain. To ski-area opponents like Ms. Berditschevsky, the issue is nothing less than ``making a stand for the values of the environment, for the sake of life on Earth that is mute and can't speak for itself - the wildlife, the mountain, and future generations.''
For ski-area advocates, on the other hand, it is a matter of reaffirming America's fundamental reliance on free enterprise. Mt. Shasta, they say, is just one more battleground in environmentalists' war against any sort of development - logging, mining, offshore oil drilling, or recreation - on public lands or in public waters.
Further, they say, the challenges to the EIS, if successful, could require developers to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on more detailed planning, engineering, and project specifications before getting the go-ahead on the projects. ``This could set a precedent, making it almost impossible to build anything in California,'' says Jim Ayers, president of skiing enthusiasts' ``Save Our Skiing'' and an avid supporter of the Mt. Shasta proposal.
MR. AYERS, Mr. Martin, and other backers are also irked that state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, a likely gubernatorial contender in 1990, would ``interfere'' by challenging the EIS. They are even more disturbed by the approval process, which they say has been manipulated by environmentalists who don't want skiing on the mountain anywhere. ``First they said the scale [of the project] was too big, so he scaled it down,'' Ayers says. ``Now they're trying to say it's too small to be a going concern.''
But environmentalists, too, complain about the process.
``The real problem is that the laws are not being upheld by the forest service,'' says Berditschevsky, a longtime resident of the area. She calls the agency's EIS ``a dishonest document'' that avoids federal and state environmental regulations. The USFS first ``tried to slide by'' with an Environmental Assessment rather than the more comprehensive EIS, Berditschevsky says. More recently, the USFS granted a permit (later put on hold) to begin logging the ski runs - even though six appeals by various individuals and environmental groups were still pending.
The appeals challenge the EIS primarily on grounds that the USFS failed to consider other sites for the ski area and that the project is not financially feasible. Environmentalists have also charged that the full scope of the project was not studied, noting that Martin at one time proposed building a resort village on private land abutting the ski area.
The Shasta-Trinity office of the USFS last month rebutted these arguments. ``We have tried to identify future impacts from this development as best we can,'' says USFS project coordinator Doug Schleusner, who notes the site was a ski area until destroyed by an avalanche a decade ago.
``It all comes down to how you define and identify `reasonably forseeable' impacts,'' he says. The outcome is now in the hands of the USFS regional forester in San Francisco, who is expected to decide by mid-March whether the project can proceed.