Sunrise light on a grove of tufa towers emerging from the water of Mono Lake with soft green and dusty-red wild grasses in the foreground, Canada geese in the shallow water with reflections of the rocky towers, and desert hills in the distance.

Boat tour operator cancels concession

The operator of one of Mono Lake’s natural history boat tours recently decided to withdraw from his concession agreement with California State Parks. This means that the lake will be without a motorized wildlife tour opportunity this summer. Canoeing and kayaking tour programs, however, remain in operation.

The operator, known as Mono Lake Boat Tours, has been offering seasonal tours since 2003. The program has typically involved a two-hour-long tour focused on wildlife and natural history and participants have reported the tours are informative and enjoyable.

Mono Lake is a part of the California State Park system, and all commercial ventures on the lake operate under state regulations that protect the lake’s many unique values including tufa, nesting and migratory birds, and water quality. Canoe and kayak programs run by the Mono Lake Committee and Caldera Kayaks, for example, both operate under concession agreements that include resource protection requirements, safety plans, and other operational rules.

Details on the situation with Mono Lake Boat Tours are still emerging, but it’s well known that State Parks staff began work on renewing the Mono Lake Boat Tours concession last year. However, in April 2009 the operator informed the state that he had no interest in either renewing the concession agreement or engaging in further communication. As best we can tell, the change of heart is due to the operator’s frustration with routine lake protection requirements that are part of the permitting process.

Surprising attempt to blame Mono Lake Committee

Surprisingly, the Mono Lake Boat Tours operator seems to be blaming State Parks and the Mono Lake Committee for his own decision to abandon operations. The particulars of this are confusing, but one entry on his website claims the tours “have come under attack” from the Committee, and another claims the State is “striving to shut down his operation.”

These allegations are surprising, disappointing-and flat out incorrect.

First, responsible programs that give people a chance to experience the wonders of Mono Lake are something the Committee advocates. For this reason, the Committee has supported the permitted motor boat tour for years, and we’re surprised to be accused of acting otherwise. In fact, it was during the process of referring a visitor to Mono Lake Boat Tours that we first heard they wouldn’t be operating this year.

Second, State Parks has dedicated a substantial amount of staff time to pursuing a successful operating agreement with Mono Lake Boat Tours, not to shutting down the program. Rangers from at least five different supervisorial levels have been involved, all seeking to craft an agreement that keeps the tours in business.

Third, it’s disappointing that the operator apparently views State Park protections at Mono Lake as unnecessary burdens to operation. Without protection, Mono Lake today would be almost thirty feet lower in elevation, its wildlife imperiled, and its waters far from today’s shoreline. Without protection, there would simply be no opportunity for boat tours of any type.

Today, canoe and kayak tours continue to operate successfully under State Park requirements-in fact, they comply with Forest Service regulations as well. If Mono Lake Boat Tours is no longer willing to meet Mono Lake protection standards through an operating agreement with State Parks, then they’ve done the right thing by withdrawing from their permit. This opens the motorized tour concession to potential new operators who have enthusiasm for delivering public programs in a manner that protects Mono Lake for decades to come.

For the Committee there is no question that natural history programs on the lake provide valuable public experiences. There’s also no question that protecting Mono Lake requires planning, management, and permitting by State Park staff. In the end both are necessary to achieve the right outcome-a healthy, thriving Mono Lake for everyone.


  1. too bad they are not renewing, but at least , since they are not happy with situation they are not staying. I would think after several years of operation they would know what is involve in operating a concession-especially at Mono Lake; I don’t believe it is any different than at any other State Park. Hopefully someone else will offer boat tours on Mono Lake.

  2. Claudia and I and 8 friends took the tour last summer. We found the tour to be quite informative and the perspective a good compliment to the canoe tours which we had taken in prior years. The operator was genuinely concerned about protecting the lake and its resources. He expressed his belief that because he was motorized other lake users applied and encouraged the state to apply different standards for his operation. He was particularly aggravated because he had seen canoers and kayakers approach osprey nests too closely and frighten nesting birds. He maintained a very conservative distance and explained the consequences of such action. I was very surprised to find he was charged by the state with the same offense. I think there is a difference between good management practices and bureaucratic mazes seemingly intended to confuse issues or make compliance virtually unattainable.