As I write this, Mammoth is being flooded by visitors. Trash is accumulating in the wilderness, spray paint is appearing on trees and buildings, RV campers are setting up shop in the Vons parking lot. Instead of experiencing a rural mountain town and leaving refreshed, departing tourists are correctly saying it was a messy and overcrowded scene.
I went to check my mail today and an RV was being fixed outside the post office. Stopping into NAPA to pick up some coolant, a separate person was asking the cashier where he could park his RV for a few days because all campgrounds were occupied. A friend of mine was camping at Sherwin Creek and at 6:45am a line of four other visitors were staking out the camp host looking for availability.
Putting it bluntly, Mammoth cannot responsibly sustain the level of visitors that it is seeing. Other destinations, both public and private, have figured out how to handle this: quotas. A simple understanding and limit of the amount of people that can be handled by law enforcement, health care, sanitation, and other civic services.
To dismiss a quota is to embrace an infinite amount of visitors. Surely no reasonable person would say that a given municipality can sustain an unlimited amount of visitation. By extension, I feel that we are currently seeing Mammoth’s limit exceeded. This is not xenophobia or angry-localism: I very much enjoy going to places where I’m assured that upon my arrival there’s a solid chance I’m going to have a good time.
When I hiked the JMT, I had a permit which ensured that my friend and I would have the general wilderness experience we were looking for and that nature was able to absorb the impact. When I go to Disneyland, I hope that via quotas or surge pricing as much as possible is done to balance park revenue with my personal desire for shorter lines and less bumping-into-people. Fire marshals put signs up in businesses: it’s the maximum amount of people that can safely and reasonably occupy a particular area. Quotas are everywhere and we benefit from them.
The city of Avalon, California has lead the way in a simple mechanism for enforcing quotas: vehicle limits. From Avalon:
Section 4-4.1702 of the Municipal Code states that no automobile, truck, [golfcart] shall be operated or parked within the City unless a vehicle permit has been obtained.Avalon Vehicle Code
With one simple action the Town of Mammoth Lakes could allow permanent residents, second home owners, and a reasonable level of additional visitors to operate their vehicles in town limits. With placards placed on dashboards or hanging from rear view mirrors enforcement would be a simple task. Violators would be asked to leave or be cited, and beyond that vehicles can be towed.
The number of permits can fluctuate as well, based on weather, camp ground availability, hotel capacity, state restrictions, and COVID positivity rates. With input from county health, area businesses, the USFS, law enforcement, and other community leaders, a constant adjustment to the permitting volume could be put in place.
Local residents would simply need to show identification, documentation from an employer, voter registration, or other similar means of showing that indeed you are living here in Mammoth.
For visitors, they would have an improved experience. Tourists would not find trash everywhere, nor would they find graffiti in the wilderness. Streets would be less congested. There are serious limitations towards restaurants and businesses in general, already limiting the amount of customers that can be served. A quota system would simply be inline with what can be supported by the Mammoth community.
This is the new normal
COVID-19 is not going anywhere anytime soon. We’ve had abject failures of leadership from the national to the local level. Collectively the attitude seems to be that if we can just get through next week there’s going to be a solution right around the corner.
Unfortunately, it’s at least another 9 months until a vaccine is available and a recent poll suggests that 1/3 of Americans will not get vaccinated. Worse, only 56% of rural residents (like Mono County) say they would get the shot. Based on even the most optimistic of estimates, there simply will not be enough efficacy or adoption for a vaccine to cause herd immunity.
And regardless of what you may personally think, all that matters is that tens of thousands of other city dwellers will want to travel to a remote mountain town. That’s already happening and all signs show that it will continue.
The idea that we just need to grin and bear it for this summer, and then maybe for the fall, and then maybe for the winter, and then maybe again for the spring with a hope and a dream towards next summer is not a plan. It is wish thinking and wish thinking has no place in public policy. Kicking the can down the road is not leadership.
A quota with adjustable numbers is flexible, has easy enforcement, and future-proofs the town of Mammoth for visitors and residents alike.
If you support this idea I would encourage you to share it with your friends, civic leaders, and elected officials.