From: Don Thompson, Associated Press
Published November 17, 2004 12:00 AM

Development a Possible Threat to California Lake, Nation's First Federal Scenic Area

LEE VINING, Calif. − Mono Lake, the high desert fascination of humorist Mark Twain that's nearly three times as salty as the ocean, remains the home to trillions of brine shrimp where thousands of California Gulls nest each spring -- all preserved because of ecological activism.


Twenty years ago, after tireless efforts by the public, Congress designated Mono (pronounced MOH'-NOH') Lake as the nation's first federal scenic area.


Now, some of those same concerned citizens, along with the U.S. Forest Service, fear those protections are imperiled by a plan to subdivide 120 acres for luxury homes on the lake's western shore.


"Everyone's lived with the scenic area regulations for 20 years, and I'm sure they've at times been frustrated by them, but they've worked," said Geoff McQuilkin, who helps lead the nonprofit Mono Lake Committee, which opposes the proposal. "This is kind of the cutting edge of bringing (development) to Mono Lake ... one of the last wild corners of California."


A meeting between Monterey-based New Cities Land Co. and Mono County planning officials is set for Thursday, as the company prepares a revised development proposal. Company officials did not return several telephone calls from The Associated Press.


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For more than four years, the Forest Service has been trying to add the acres to Inyo National Forest, which includes Mono Lake. The land has aspen groves, springs and a stream that attract wildlife to the boundary where the Sierra Nevada range drops into the Great Basin that stretches through Nevada into Utah.


The agency, according to forest supervisor Jeff Bailey, wants to swap the property for some in the nearby resort community of Mammoth Lakes. The deal, though, has been derailed by a squabble over price. A Forest Service appraisal last year put the land's worth at about half the price sought by the property's owners.


"We are so far apart in value that I don't think we can even come close," Bailey said.


The original plan called for 24 to 30 homes scattered across a highway from the lake, and the county expects the revised proposal to also fit the homes into the hilly landscape to minimize the visual and environmental impact. But the Forest Service ruled last year that developing the property is "incompatible and detrimental to the integrity of the Scenic Area".


County planners for years had assumed the Forest Service's land restrictions precluded development, until a recent legal opinion held that the county should proceed under its less restrictive zoning regulations.


If the Forest Service doesn't like the result, it has its own options -- including condemning the land under the 1984 law creating the Mono Basin National Forest Scenic Area. Bailey said he would recommend that step, but McQuilkin fears the Bush administration won't enforce the scenic area's ban on development if it comes to condemning private property.


"It quickly moves out of local hands and moves to Washington, where it becomes a political issue," McQuilkin said.


The lake sits on the sparsely inhabited border between California and Nevada, just east of Yosemite National Park. Besides its wildlife, it draws tourists to view tufa towers, oddly shaped limestone deposits created by underwater springs. Just to the south are the upheavals of the youngest volcanic chain in North America.


Among the first to widely report on the remote region was a young Samuel Clemens, who had come West in the 1860s to seek his fortune in the gold fields and later as a journalist and author. In his 1872 book, "Roughing It," Twain wonders at an isolated lake in which water flows in but never flows out, evaporating instead at a rate of about 45 inches a year.


The lake was on a path to destruction after Los Angeles diverted four tributary streams into the Los Angeles Aquaduct in 1941. The move followed the much more publicized diversion to the south that turned Owens Lake into a dusty plain; Mono Lake eventually lost half its volume and doubled its salinity.


The federal scenic designation and subsequent California water rights rulings in 1986 and 1994 helped reverse the decline, and the lake is expected to reach what state and federal authorities set as an "environmentally sustainable" level by 2014, still well shy of its pre-diversion level.


Source: Associated Press


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