Travel on the gravel
South Tufa plans finalized
by Bartshe Miller
Do you recall a time traveling far from home, when you turned off the pavement onto a dirt road, the low rumble of tires moving across gravel, bumping along through the dust past unfamiliar terrain to a mysterious destination? Your experience began when you left the pavement: freedom, something remote and exciting was usually ahead, something that few people had seen before or would see again. A dirt road meant somewhere different, somewhere wild, out there.
Fortunately the United States Forest Service (USFS) has changed its plans and decided not to pave the ½ mile gravel road to South Tufa or the South Tufa parking lot, with a small exception. The original plans, finalized in 1993, called for realigning, widening, and paving the road all the way from the entrance at Hwy 120 East to and including the South Tufa parking lot. When news got out that the USFS was about to implement the plans, they received numerous letters and feedback. (Mono Lake Committee members came forth with many heartfelt and poignant letters; thank you for making your views knownyour comments have been invaluable.) The majority of comments were clearly in opposition to paving and enlarging the parking area. After recent input from the Tufa State Reserve, Mono Lake Committee, and the general public, the USFS has decided to alter the plans.
Technically the USFS did not have to consider further comment from the public after the Environmental Assessment comment process was completed in 1993. The Committee thanks the USFS for the time it spent meeting with the Committee and Tufa State Reserve staff, and gathering input in an effort to better respond to the public on the changes at South Tufa. Part of that response included deciding not to pave the parking lot and road at the site.
The USFS has decided to go ahead with the following specific plans:
put a large amount of gravel on the road to bring the existing gravel road up to the surrounding ground level
realign and pave the entrance slope leading from Hwy 120 East down to where it levels off (about 500 feet, somewhat past the Navy Beach road entrance)
realign the Navy Beach road to enter at a right angle with a stop sign
realign the intersection of the county road (Test Station Road) and the South Tufa entrance road
construct a new entrance road into the South Tufa parking lot from the east
dig to minimize the slope of the parking lot; maintain existing boundary (as partially expanded this summer)
pave several parking spaces in front of the South Tufa kiosk and trail entrance (five total, with two of these being striped for no parking) to complete handicap and emergency access to the trail.
construct one or two shade and picnic structures at the edge of the parking lot (exact details yet to be decided)
block off, dig up and replant (at least by placing topsoil with seeds in it) the abandoned section of the South Tufa entrance road
consider minor improvements at Navy Beach parking lot as long as gravel and equipment would be in area; details to be recommended by State and MLC; decision to be made in early February
The above changes will be the last in a series that began four years ago with the installation of a large interpretive shade structure at the South Tufa trailhead. Three summers ago, the USFS installed a fee-collection kiosk at the trailhead with the beginning of the fee demo program in 1997. The following year three large vault bathroom structures (one more than planned) were installed replacing the old and increasingly unpleasant chemical ones. This past year, the USFS paved a trail around the lot and down to the lake, put in curbs, and unexpectedly enlarged part of the lot. The trail, parking lot and next years road work were part of a larger plan to upgrade facilities at South Tufa that was completed in 1993, during a time when Mono Lake Committee was focused on the Water Board hearings.
Visitors will still have to bump along a dirt road, leaving the most of the worlds pavement behind. Not everyone will be happy. Pavement will give way to gravel without striped lines to stay between, some bumps in the road might cause a CD player to skip, there will be dust, slow travel, and more time to appreciate the views. The road to South Tufa will continue to inconveniently remind visitors that Mono Lake is not the typical tourist destination, but somewhere different, wild, out there.
Striking a balance
Visitation has increased at Mono Lake and changes at South Tufa, the main visitor day-use site, have become necessary and inevitable.
If you have visited South Tufa in the past and decide to return, you will notice the changes. It will be hard to miss the five new structures, the cement curb, the enlarged parking lot, the paved trail around the parking lot and to the lake, more shade, more parking, more pleasant restroom facilities, and definitely better handicap access. You might lament the changes, or you might welcome them, or you might have mixed emotions. Your experience will be different.
But if you have never visited South Tufa before, what will your experience be like?
When visitation increases at a recreation site, park and public land managers often make predictable changes that include pavement, cement, and more or bigger structures. These changes may not always be the best alternatives, and there may be other solutions that can serve increased visitation without diminishing the experience.
Searching for these solutions has been the Mono Lake Committees concern during the last year working with the Forest Service on the improvements at South Tufa. We have watched visitation increase over twenty years, conversed with hundreds of thousands of visitors, and tens of thousands of Mono Lake Committee members. We have had contact with the thousands of people who have discovered Mono Lake during two decades of South Tufa walks. We are not engineers, but we are experts on visitation.
We have valuable input to contribute, and will continue to work with the Inyo National Forest and Tufa State Reserve to find a reasonable balance between visitors access, improvements, and the Mono Lake experience.
Bartshe Miller is the Committees Education Director. He went all the way to Oklahoma looking for wild places this season