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The National Monument
A bill to set aside Mono Lake as a monument under the National Park Service was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1981 by Congressman Norman Shumway (R.-Calif.). A modified version of the bill has since been introduced by Congressman Richard Lehman (D.-Calif.) with Shumway's support. The new bill would establish a national monument under the administration of the Forest Service and would encompass a larger area, to include the Mono Craters. Last week Senator Alan Cranston (D.-Calif.) introduced a twin bill in the Senate.
Capitol Hill observers feel there's little chance of the monument being created during the tenure of the present administration, which is clearly loath to acquire new federal properties or to add preservationist-type restrictions on the use of existing ones. Two hearings on the House measures have been held before the Interior Subcommittee on Public Lands and Parks, a body chaired by Congressman John Seiberling (D.-Ohio). Another is scheduled for June 2 on the Lehman bill. DWP witnesses have opposed both bills, arguing that the establishment of a monument would adversely affect their water rights. The Mono Lake Committee favors monument status.
During hearings on the original bill, Seiberling buoyed conservationists' spirits by angrily turning on a DWP representative and saying that it appeared to him that the gist of the waterworks testimony was: "Mono Lake drop dead." Later Seiberling said that his charge seemed to get the DWP's attention and that since then it has dissembled less and been more reasonable.
Seiberling spent a part of last fall's Congressional recess making an inspection of natural marvels in the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains. He arrived at Mono Lake after an early blizzard had deposited a foot of snow on the basin.
In addition to a host of BLM, Forest, Park, and Fish and Wildlife personnel, Seiberling brought several political aides with him. The Mono Lake Committee and the DWP each had half a dozen people on hand. Eventually the entourage got to the top of a volcanic cone that overlooks much of the Mono Basin. Because of the blizzard the place was at its weirdest—good or bad. The lake was very blue, the landscape white (snow and alkaline crystals) on black (lava) and could have passed as either the high arctic or the far side of the moon. It was exotic enough to shut everyone up, even the flack types, for a few breaths. Then Seiberling asked, "Is this a holy place or anything, like the one we saw the other day?" He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of southern Utah. On reflection, this was a reasonable and, given the surroundings, obvious question, but it momentarily flummoxed the rest of the party. Finally an aide asked tentatively, "You mean native claims?" Seiberling nodded a bit impatiently. Having caught his drift, several federal land managers assured him the Indians had no religious or legal designs on the Mono Basin.
The sense of the sacred in the natural splendors of America has been persistent and remains more general than our style permits us to admit. Gaines, with his abiding passion for the waters of the strange lake, is obviously responding to similar feelings. Virtually all of the controversies we now call environmental are at their hearts spiritual. They are ultimately concerned with what symbols—lands, waters, vistas, species—should be used as testimonials to our awe and reverence of nature. When Congressman Seiberling accused the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power of wanting Mono Lake to "drop dead," he was leveling a charge of natural blasphemy. The waterworks has since gone to great pains to prove that its people revere nature as much as anybody, but only question whether this weird desert lake is a necessary and suitable object for adoration.
If we should preserve Mono Lake, we will no doubt formally say we did so to serve ecology, the gene pool, beauty, outdoor recreation, public health or law. But these will probably be peripheral issues. At Mono Lake the difference of opinion is not about the corporeal welfare of shrimp but about the character of our humanity and the obligations it entails to acknowledge and respect mysterious nature, the elements we did not create, the forms we cannot replace and the forces whose functions and purposes we do not comprehend.