Mono Lake like another planet east of Sierra

When I viewed the list of the 70 state parks scheduled for closure, the biggest surprise was Mono Lake Tufa State Nature Reserve.

Is it possible that after decades of effort to save California's second-largest lake, we may lose it to budget cuts to save $111,000?

Stewardship of the Mono Lake Basin is shared by the California State Parks, the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. So, finding out what part is affected by the state closure is tricky business.

To the best of my knowledge, the state park preserves the spectacular tufa towers. It also protects the lake surface itself as well as the wetlands that provide habitat for 1 million to 2 million birds that feed and rest annually at Mono Lake. Eighty percent of all California sea gulls are hatched at Mono Lake, feeding on the alkali flies that rest on the water's surface.

Articles by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Mono Lake Committee estimate savings from closing this park would be anywhere from $111,000 to zero.

I have long wanted to explore this lake, so I indulged myself with an overnight trip and a planned three-hour kayak tour with a local naturalist.

I arrived in the hamlet of Lee Vining around midafternoon. I stopped at the very large visitor center (run by the National Park Service, not the state, so it will remain open) and gathered information from the rangers.

They suggested that I might enjoy hiking around the rim of Panum Crater, which would give me a slightly different view for photographing the lake and tufas.

Panum Crater is on the south side of the lake and is one of the youngest volcanos in the area, about 700 years old. A hike on the barren sand-and-gravel trail around the rim takes about an hour and offers views of both the inside of the crater and the South Tufa area.

When it came to taking photos, I felt the same as when I was at the Grand Canyon: Hundreds of thousands have come before me and taken the same shots, but I just had to do it. After 300-plus camera clicks, I was a happy camper.

After Panum Crater I drove a couple of miles to South Tufa Park. This is where the most spectacular of the tufa formations are. The state park closure will not affect South Tufa Park, but it will eliminate the wide variety of guided tours.

I went on a 90-minute excursion and discovered that the path down to the water is wheelchair accessible.

Sage, rabbit brush and greasewood are the primary plant life that thrive in the harsh soil around the lake. Paintbrush plants and a yellow, lilylike flower called blazing star add occasional color to the landscape.

The tour brought my group right up to the tufas on land and had us slogging through puddles filled with thousands of alkali flies. Small natural hot springs dot the marshier parts around the lake, some still in use.

Our guide tackled questions from the adults, engaged the kids and assisted the photographers. To see the tiny, quarter-inch brine shrimp, just dip a cup into the water. You'll come up with half a dozen.

As with all lakes that are high in salinity, 65-square-mile Mono Lake has no outlet. Throughout its long existence, salts and minerals have washed into the lake from Sierra streams, but nothing flows out. It is about 2 1/2 times as salty as the ocean, and very alkaline.

The lake is, of course, most famous for the tufa formations, calcium-carbonate spires and knobs formed by interaction of freshwater springs and alkaline lake water. This is the only place in the world where this occurs.

Approaching them – especially on water – I felt like I was entering some weird combination of a sci-fi landscape and a Disneyland ride. A naturalist demonstrated how easily tufa towers formed in Mono Lake by taking a jar of water, adding calcium and carbonate, and then pouring the contents into the lake. Within moments, we could see small bits of tufa forming. Tufa forms only underwater.

On the second day of my trip, I took a three-hour kayak tour with Caldera Kayaks. The guide offered some excellent information about the ecology, environment and history of Mono Lake.

When we stopped on shore for a break, he read Mark Twain's writing on Mono Lake. We paddled up to Rush Creek, one of the lake's feeder streams. Here, there is fresh water that layers several inches atop the saline water and creates an interesting lens for looking into the depths.

Our kayak tour was skillfully led back to shore just as the afternoon winds began to kick up, so we had only to power paddle for about five minutes. Caldera Kayaks and other commercial boating groups will no longer be able to operate on the lake once the state park closes.

I visited the Mono Lake Book Store, viewed a film on the history of the lake and signed a petition to keep the park open. Residents of the Eastern Sierra are determined to save their lake and have a long history of achieving this goal. Anyone living in Northern California from the late '70s on has seen the ever present SAVE MONO LAKE bumper stickers.

Mono Lake's existence is a modern environmental success story. It was saved, in dramatic fashion, by an unlikely coalition of trout fishermen, environmentalists and water-rights lawyers.

Today, it's recovering from 50 years of abuse. In 1941, the city of Los Angeles began diverting all of the lake's feeder streams for the city's drinking water. By the 1970s, the lake level was reduced by half, increasing the salinity. None of the shrimp, flies or birds that depended on the lake could survive.

After years of legal wrangling, a compromise was reached in 1994, and half the feeder streams were returned to the lake. The lake continues to recover, and in the meantime Los Angeles has become one of the leading cities in water conservation.

Now Mono Lake is one of 70 state parks being shuttered in hopes of saving $22 million. Mono Lake's supporters say closing the park won't save the state a dime but will derail volunteer programs that have allowed the park to operate for years at minimal cost.

About 250,000 people visit the park each year. A couple of years ago, budget cuts took away the park's only state ranger. Now, a ranger from the state park of Bodie, 20 miles away, occasionally drops in on Mono Lake.

The closure will sideline the interpretative programs, kayak tours and other activities funded by private donations and staffed by volunteers.

The committee is organizing a letter-writing campaign and exploring how to get off the closure list. Closures are set for July, and the state is seeking partners who could operate parks that would otherwise be shut.

Finally, before heading home, I stopped at the county park on the north end of the lake. This is where the official state reserve is and therefore another area that will be closed. There is a lovely, grassy picnic area, a wetland, more tufa and a long, planked walkway to the lake that is wheelchair accessible.

If nothing else, my tour guides wanted me to take away one thing: Mono Lake is a living lake, and not California's Dead Sea.

Oh yes, and it's pronounced Moe-No the O is long. It is not pronounced like the kissing disease. The word "mono" means "fly eater." The Paiute Indians traded the alkali fly eggs from the lake as a delicacy with their Yosemite neighbors.