Mono Lake Tufa Reserve on chopping block for next year

Mono Lake’s Tufa State Natural Reserve is on the chopping block for possibly closure next year, state and local sources confirmed this week.

Bodie State Park is not on the list and Mono Lake and the reserve are open now and will remain open this year.

But if the closure goes into effect next year, it will spell more bad news for Mono County, which is already struggling with economic hits due to the recession.

“The reserve gets a quarter of a million visits every year,” said Geoff McQuilkin, director of the Mono Lake Committee.

“That is a lot of people who won’t be in the local stores and restaurants.”

The final fate of the reserve, which is estimated to bring some $42 million a year into the county (through visitors spending money here) is still pending as the state Legislature struggles to reduce its deficit over the next several months.

But McQuilkin said closing the reserve “doesn’t make sense” even based on the state’s own cost saving criteria.

While no one with a park in their area wants to see it closed, McQuilkin said the state’s decision regarding Mono Lake is particularly puzzling.

“The most the state would save by closing the reserve is 10 percent of the cost of one state ranger,” McQuilkin said. That’s because the reserve is run almost entirely with private money from the Bodie Foundation. That funding pays for one part-time interpretive specialist for the reserve. The only money the state puts into the reserve is for one full-time ranger, who spends “90 percent of his time in Bodie, and the other 10 percent on the reserve,” according to McQuilkin.

Another criterion set by the state Legislature that should stand on the side of keeping the reserve open is a strong use of volunteers and private funding sources, he said.

“We have a strong network of both,” he said. “That’s why this decision is so puzzling.”
And he has another worry.

“Already we are getting calls about people wondering if they should cancel their Memorial Day visit here,” he said. “Even though the closure wouldn’t come until next year, if it occurs, there is the belief out there that it is already closed, since it is on the list.”

That kind of perception could extend to other tourist destinations here in the Eastern Sierra, such as Bodie or even Yosemite and Mammoth Lakes, he said.

And there is another problem.

Mono Lake is also going to be extremely difficult to close.

“It’s not like we have a gate or a campground that we can just close,” he said. The Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve is a large and intact refuge for the plants and animals that depend on the lake for their survival. It is an unusual state park both in its size, and because of its standing as a “natural reserve,” not just a state park. If it closes, it will be hard to protect both the lake and the human infrastructure near it, such as boardwalks, he said.

In addition, the lake is a magnet for scientific research. This was demonstrated in the last year by the discovery of a NASA team that arsenic could possibly be used as one of the “building blocks” of life, rather than as inherently toxic to life.

Another NASA team used the lake bed’s rough and barren terrain last year to test a prototype of a Mars ROVER, in advance of sending such a robot to Mars to search for life.

“If the reserve is closed, it means no requests for scientific research can be processed,” McQuilkin said. “That could really slow down some of the internationally-known research work being done here.”

McQuilkin and the Mono Lake Committee will continue to advocate the Legislature and the public to support keeping the reserve open.