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Saving the Eastern Sierra: Recreation or Generation?

November 06, 1988|Phil Pister | Phil Pister supervises fishery management and research for the state Department of Fish and Game in the Inyo-Mono area. His opinions here do not necessarily represent those of the department.

BISHOP — East of the Sierra Nevada crest, extending into the Great Basin deserts, lies a land known to millions of Southern Californians as "Inyo-Mono," nearly 10 million acres harboring hundreds of mountain lakes, miles from the summit of Mt. Whitney to the floor of Death Valley, and ski slopes ranking among the most heavily used in the world.

So popular is the eastern Sierra that visitor use in the Inyo National Forest alone (only 20% of Inyo-Mono's total area) currently exceeds combined annual visitation at Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Glacier national parks, more than 7 million visitor days. Add to this the Toiyabe National Forest's Walker River drainage to the north, large areas administered by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in Owens Valley (such as Crowley Lake) and desert lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service lying to the east, we have within Inyo and Mono counties the most valuable recreational resource in the world.

As California expands into the next century, with major growth occurring in Southern California within an easy five-hour drive to Inyo-Mono, it is reasonable to expect that recreational pressure will expand accordingly. As it does, the inexorable economic law of supply and demand will make these resources increasingly valuable. One would naturally think, then, that government agencies entrusted with stewardship of such resources would be exerting every effort to preserve them. In reality, the agencies are no better stewards than their policies, mixed with the application of law--both strongly influenced by politics--allow them to be.

The father of the American conservation movement, Aldo Leopold, observed that persons with an ecological education live alone in a world of wounds. As a biologist with the Department of Fish and Game, it has been my lot to fall into this category of the ecologically aware. Much of my effort during the past decade has necessarily been directed toward protecting valuable fish and wildlife habitats from the unfeeling hand of developmental interests, often strongly supported by agencies of government.

At the end of World War II, California's population was heading toward 7 million. Since that time, in the relatively short period of 43 years, it has exploded to nearly 30 million, by far the most populous state in the nation, with no sign of stopping or even slowing significantly. The impact on local recreational resources has likewise exploded.

But the important point is that during these same 43 years, the area's aquatic resources--the basis of the recreation industry--have continued to dwindle. More than 85% of the eastern Sierra's stream mileage downstream from Forest Service wilderness boundaries has been impacted by water diversion, and more than 25% of the historical stream resource no longer exists in this area, which somehow still survives as one of the world's most spectacular scenic resources.

How did these losses occur? Because naive but well-meaning officials through the years were "flexible and compromising," putting short-term political and administrative expedience above long-term public interest. They compromised away major portions of a recreational resource that increases daily in value to the people of this state and nation.

I remember the frustration and helplessness I felt in 1953, when I was assigned to rescue trout from the Owens River Gorge as the entire Owens was diverted into gorge hydroelectric penstocks and the river gradually dried up; it remains dry today, 35 years later. The Owens Gorge was dried up to supply hydroelectric power to burgeoning populations in Southern California. Ironically, these same people now flock to the Inyo-Mono area only to find ever-fewer recreational opportunities. Many ask, as they stop by our office: "What happened to the gorge?"

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer individuals have this historical perspective, and newcomers arrive with the naive and erroneous impression that our resources remain at the 100% level and can continue to be exploited without long-term damage to the recreational economy.

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