Mono Lake Newsletter

Charting a course in a complex world

by Heidi Hopkins

The Mono Lake Committee has evolved over the last twenty years, responding to changes in the world around us and to the shining rise of Mono Lake. Still, the Committee’s original mission remains essentially intact: to protect the values that make the Mono Basin productive to migratory birds and other wildlife and a wellspring of inspiration to the visiting public.

Thanks to our tremendous success at Mono Lake, "Mono Lake Committee" has become a household word in many circles, both regionally and statewide. This recognition brings responsibility. Today, more than ever before, we have to maintain our focus on our primary goals.

The Committee frequently receives requests for our participation in a wide range of environmental issues, particularly issues affecting the Eastern Sierra. For example, as a member of the Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce, we were asked to sign a resolution opposing open pit mining in Mono County. As a business in Lee Vining we were asked to join the effort to seek changes in the way the Tioga Pass Road is managed. As an environmental group that succeeded in regaining water from the City of Los Angeles, we frequently are contacted by folks who are working on the various problems at Owens Dry Lake and at Walker Lake, Nevada.

Over the years, the Committee has learned that it’s important to prioritize and focus our efforts. We’ve learned this in part by necessity, in part through trial and error. Most importantly, the Committee can’t do everything. On the other hand, most issues deserve our consideration.

To help guide us in deciding what we will and will not take on—and the amount of time we will devote to an issue—the Committee has developed a decision-making process and a matrix of priorities through which staff filter every incoming issue or request.

Decision-making process

The Mono Lake Committee is a committee, and its decisions are decisions by committee. The primary decision-makers are staff and board members. Opinions expressed by Committee members at large weigh heavily in decisions.

Depending on the level of importance of any particular issue, there are three basic ways the Committee reaches a decision. For straightforward matters, staff recommend a decision, which is forwarded to the executive director for approval. For more complex issues, staff and the executive director jointly reach a decision, sometimes with the input of selected board members. The most complex decisions are referred to the Committee board of directors. Staff attend and contribute their opinions at these board meetings.

Matrix of priorities

Above all, the Committee is guided by its mission of "protecting and restoring the Mono Basin ecosystem, educating the public about Mono Lake and the impacts on the environment of excessive water use, and promoting cooperative solutions that protect Mono Lake and meet real water needs without transferring environmental problems to other areas." But while the mission serves as a guidepost, it is not the pragmatic filter we need to decide among competing demands on a daily basis.

When a particular issue arises the Committee first asks: Is the issue within the Mono Basin watershed or, if not, might it significantly affect Mono Basin resources? "Located within the Mono Basin watershed" is straightforward. "Affecting Mono Basin resources" much less so. There are many issues outside the Mono Basin that can and do directly affect resources in the Basin—LA’s efficient use of water, federal and state rules on clean air, California’s need for safe drinking water in the future, to name a few. But the issue is neither in the Mono Basin watershed nor likely to significantly affect its resources, in most cases we will not take on the issue.

Next, we examine where an issue fits within our organizational priority areas. First and most important, will the issue affect the resources—the lake, streams and wildlife of the Mono Basin? Second, will the issue affect the visitor experience at Mono Lake?

Finally, if further prioritization is necessary—for example, to decide how much staff time to devote to a particular issue—we have another filter: first priority, the lake and tributary streams; second priority, the basin as a whole.

An important element throughout our decision-making is how the Committee’s positions on issues and the actions we propose to take may affect our local community.

Charting our course

Even with these simple rules at hand the Mono Basin still manages to present us with complex issues for which our course is also complex. For example, CalTrans’ four-laning project will improve stream crossings and help visitors travel more safely in the Mono Basin; the project also will increase traffic speed in Lee Vining and along Mono Lake, negatively affecting local businesses and the visitor experience. Proposed gravel pit expansions will move operations away from Rush Creek—in certain senses an improvement—but also will expand the size and visibility of industrial operations in the Mono Basin. Lively discussions take place in our weekly staff meetings and on the phone to our board members as the twenty-year-old Mono Lake Committee considers what it will and will not take on.

In the following pages we outline a select group of issues that have met our criteria and are important for Mono Lake’s healthy future. Please contact Heidi at ( with questions or observations you may have.

Return to Spring 1999 Newsletter

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Last Updated January 07, 2007