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Tours and trails through the astonishing landscape of Mono Lake.

A temporary reprieve--successive wet winters that raised the water level--is just part of the good news about California's shrinking Mono Lake. There are new trails and tours through this wrinkled landscape with its pumice beaches, tufa cones, and volcanic fissures. And moves to protect adjacent land are progressing.

Mono Lake is off U.S. Highway 395 about 65 miles north of Bishop; it's a short stopover from nearby Mammoth Lakes and June Lake, or Yosemite National Park (via State 120, the Tioga Pass Road, due to open May 25).

Now through November is a good time to visit. The hiking and bird-watching are spectacular, and on warm summer days the glassy waters shimmer with the reflection of clouds and snowy Sierra crags.

It's a critical period in the life of this salt lake, poised precariously between sanctuary and slow death. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages 160,000 acres there, has designated the lands adjacent to the lake an Area of Critical Environmental Concern in recognition of their special management needs. Protective measures include restrictions on camping, vehicle use, livestock grazing, access to islands during nesting, and surface occupancy on energy leases.

A bill in Congress (H.R. 1341) proposes a Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area, which would prevent logging, geothermal development, and most mining in 61,000 acres; it would also fund construction of a visitor center. And for the first time, the state legislature has set aside $250,000 to study the ecological impact of the lake's shrinkage.

For an overview, you might stop first in Lee Vining; the office of the three-year-old Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve (cooperatively managed with the BLM) is off U.S. 395 at Fourth Street (open 9 to 11 A.M. weekdays, 9 to 10 A.M. weekends; 619/647-6331) for maps and brochures. In the town center on U.S. 395, the privately funded Mono Lake Committee information center (9 to 9 daily; 619/647-6386) has books, maps, photographic displays, and free hourly slide shows. Or visit the BLM office in Bishop at 873 N. Main Street, open 7:30 to 4:15 weekdays. State rangers and committee volunteers offer 1-hour guided walks leading from the South Tufa area parking lot. The committee's hikes (with an admittedly pro-environment view) are daily at 10 and 1. Ranger-led walks begin at 11 and 2 daily. There's a new 12-station nature trail here as well, and each Saturday at 8 P.M. you can join a ranger-led stargazing party. From U.S. 395 south of Lee Vining, take State 120 east and follow signs.

From here you can walk or drive to the dazzling sands of Navy Beach. It's a good place for swimming, but wash the salt off right away and keep it out of your eyes--the water contains 17 minerals and is three times saltier than the ocean. The small wind-eroded tufa forms here look like tiny multicolumned temples.

On the north shore, take Cemetery Road to the 100-acre Mono Lake County Park; you can picnic or hike to the the largest tufa shapes (up to 30 feet tall). Similar to limestone, the towers were formed when the calcium from fresh-water springs mixed with the carbonate in the lake and hardened into these bulbous shapes. A new boardwalk keeps you above the smelly, viscous mud. (It's illegal to climb on or break off tufa.) Guided hikes will be given daily; check for times at the Mono Lake Committee's center.

To get to the new BLM Black Point Fissures Trail from U.S. 395, head east on this road (now gravel) for 2.2 miles; after you pass a creek viaduct, go 1.1 miles to the parking lot. The trail is due to open by June; it's a 1-mile walk climbing steadily to a ridge. Then you can hike down into these deep volcanic gashes. Allow a half-day for the drive and hike.

For bird-watchers, the lake is a treasure-trove. It's the largest nesting ground for California gulls; some 50,000 of them stay from March into October to feed on brine shrimp.

You'll also see thousands of American avocets, eared grebes, common snipes. The snowy plover nests on the alkali flats now into September. And July to September, Wilson's and northern phalaropes stop on their southward migration. Declining water level, mounting controversy

By 1981, the lake level had dipped to 42 feet below the 1941 level (measured in elevation, it's now 6,371 feet). The hatch of brine shrimp also shrank to a record low, and 25,000 gull chicks died.

David Gaines of the Mono Lake Committee believes the lower level resulted in higher salinity, which caused fewer shrimp to hatch, and the shrunken food supply may have been related to the die-off of chicks.

But a study for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) blamed very hot summer temperatures in 1981 for the chick deaths. "Our scientists' studies indicate no effects on the bird and shrimp population directly related to the changes in lake levels," states LeVal Lund, engineer for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Last year's level was up 8 feet, the shrimp hatch soared, and chick survival doubled. Summer temperatures were also notably cooler.

The higher waters also inundated the land bridge by which predators raided the Negit Island gull nesting grounds.

Mono Lake's sole aquatic inhabitants--the tiny brine shrimp and brine flies--have survived even though the lake has shrunk to half its 1941 volume and its salinity has doubled. How much higher salinity the shrimp can withstand is unknown (the new state study aims to find out). But there is one certainty: if the brine shrimp die out, the birds will desert the lake.

The key fight to maintain fresh-water inflow is now in federal court. Of five main streams feeding the lake, the LADWP has had the rights to divert the water from four of them into its aqueduct since 1940 (with a pause from September 1982 to April 1984).

Under debate is a "public trust doctrine" ruling, which deems that in cases involving navigable waterways, the state allocations must balance human water needs with the need to protect recreational, esthetic, and scientific values.
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Jun 1, 1984
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