A Q&A with the Owens Valley’s Best Friend – Mike Prather

Mike Prather sharing his love for, and knowledge of, the bird life at Owens Lake.

A staunch defender of the Owens Valley’s incomparable natural features, former elementary and middle school teacher Mike Prather is a consistent and reliable advocate for nature through his efforts to preserve the Lower Owens River and Owens Lake, among many other places. Born and raised in Sonoma County, Mike’s family introduced him to the great outdoors through trips to their family cabins on Salmon Creek, just north of Bodega Bay, and on the Russian River. He hiked and played among the oaks, streams and redwood forests, and in school pursued his wide-ranging interests in education, botany, biology, ornithology and even fungi. After graduating from Cal State Chico, Mike taught all subjects to fourth through sixth graders in a two-room schoolhouse in Death Valley National Park alongside his wife Nancy, who taught K-3. They later moved to Lone Pine, where they have lived since 1980. Mike and Nancy raised two daughters in Lone Pine and are enjoying being grandparents and active community members.

Owensrivergirl posed some questions to Mike recently. A good friend to all of us working on behalf of safeguarding the lands and waters of our golden state, Mike is fond of quoting a sign he once saw hung on an office wall at National Audubon: “Endless pressure, endlessly applied.” Thanks to his passion for the Owens Valley, Mike is the best friend the two mountain ranges and their deep cradle in between could ever hope to have.

Tell me about your mom and dad.

My mom accepted all of the wild critters that I brought home. Once, while conducting a conversation with our neighbor over the fence, one of my ravens flew and landed on my mother’s head. Mom continued the conversation as if nothing had occurred. My father was the Planning Director for Sonoma County during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when PG&E was proposing to build the nuclear power plant on Bodega Head. I learned a lot about pressure, politics and lobbying during that time. Our phone rang off the hook with lobbyists with PG&E. My father advocated for the PG&E plant since he worked for the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. He took his lumps and our name is even in the lyrics of the protest ballad of the time, “Ballad of Bodega Head.” About that same time Castle and Cook was developing the Sea Ranch, which eventually led politically to a campaign to protect our California coast and protect access. My father supported the Williamson Act that protects farming and ranch lands. I went with him as he spoke in support of legislation to create Point Reyes National Sea Shore in Marin County. He gave me a book on global warming that he received from a writer in the early 1970’s. I know he valued the environment. I also know that politics stink and I would never want to be a planner and work for others.

When you were ten years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Anything that was outside – in Nature.

At present, what do you want to be when you grow up?

A grandfather and to promote and defend Nature.

Which books have made an impact on who you are today? What about them resonated with you?

  • Several of John Muir’s books – the reverence shown for Nature touched me. Climbing to top of a Douglas fir in a windstorm, laying in a hot steam vent mud on Mount Shasta all night in a blizzard to stay alive, enjoying the singing of a Dipper in an ice-covered Merced River in winter moved me.
  • The Wind Birds by Peter Matthiessen – the phenomena of migration and the passing of seasons. Sheer wonder.
  • Desert Wildflowers by Edmond Jaeger. Beautiful black-line illustrations with such informative text by a man who truly knew and loved the California desert.
  • Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. The best of desert literature and it was written more than 100 years ago right where I live today. Accident?
  • The Man Who Walked Through Time by Colin Fletcher. I read this book after my wife and I backpacked from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back. Fletcher’s descriptions of natural sounds and silence and space remain with me.
  • Anything written by Wallace Stegner.
  • Field Guide to Western Birds by Roger Tory Peterson.
  • Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.

What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

The most important environmental book that you write is in your head while growing up and during your time on Earth. It contains the sounds and visions that you experience. The smells and wonders. It is personal and perfect. It’s you.

What projects are you focused on today?

The return of hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl to Owens Lake. Working to enhance and protect the habitat for those species. Also working on the restoration of the Lower Owens River riparian ecosystem and recreational paddling trails.

Where did you learn the most in terms of how to get things done on behalf of nature?

When I became active on a regional level with the Sierra Club and became part of a large network of activists my skills grew and were refined. I found many mentors through the Sierra Club Regional Desert Committee – Elden Hughes, Jim Dodson, Cal French, Marge Sill and many others. The Sierra Club sent me to lobbying weeks in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

What awards have you won?

  • The National Audubon Society ‘William Dutcher Award’ (2013) for work on Owens Lake habitat.
  • The Audubon California Chapter Volunteer Award for ‘Outstanding Service’ (2009).
  • The Range of Light Group (Toiyabe Chapter) ‘2006 Andrea Lawrence Lifetime Achievement Award.’
  • The Sierra Club ‘Ye Olde Bottle Award’ (2003) for work on water and land issues in the Owens Valley.
  • United States Geological Survey award for completing over 50 Breeding Bird Surveys.

Of which achievement are you most proud?

  • Shaping the 1991 Inyo County-Los Angeles Long-term Water Agreement.
  • Re-watering 62 miles of the Lower Owens River on December 6, 2006.
  • Enhancing and protecting habitat for hundreds of thousands of shorebirds and waterfowl through my work writing portions of the Owens Lake Master Project with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
  • Adding 1.5 million acres to Death Valley National Park and 800,000 acres of wilderness to Inyo County through my ten years of advocacy and participation in the creation of the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.

What is your favorite animal?

All birds – they fly.

What is on your travel bucket list?

The Far North in Alaska and Canada where my shorebird friends nest each year. I have only ever been able to spend time with them ‘in passing.’

I would like to return to Australia and see the rest of it – Western Australia.

Describe a time when you felt like your task was hopeless, yet you persevered.

  • Countless times over 30 years while working on water and land issues in opposition to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Agreed-to timelines missed with callousness. Revisionist reading of legal agreements regarding groundwater pumping in the Owens Valley and for returning water to the Lower Owens River. Being told with a smile by LADWP, “Litigation is cheaper than water.” (In other words, “Sue us.”)
  • Working to control and reverse the onslaught of off-road vehicles on our wild lands.
  • Failing to win support in the Owens Valley and Los Angeles for a conservation easement on LADWP lands in Inyo and Mono counties. Twice…

What is your favorite natural feature in the Owens Valley?

Driving into Lone Pine on Hwy 136 from Death Valley where you cross the Owens River, see the Alabama Hills ahead and the Mount Whitney Crest towering in the distance. I enjoy the ‘Big Picture’ – the wholeness.

Where is the best place to eat in the Owens Valley?

  • Seasons Restaurant in Lone Pine for dinner.
  • Still Life Café in Independence (French) – be prepared to spend three hours at the table. An experience.
  • Merry-Go-Round for Chinese in Lone Pine.

What gets you up in the morning?

The world excites me. Each day I want to get up and see what’s happening and what I can do. I like to seek solutions.

Do things seem better to you or worse with regard to the planet’s health? Do you ever get depressed about the state of the Earth (climate change, species extinction, development, energy use, poverty, etc.?)?

I truly think that overall we are in trouble. I try not to think about it that much, however, or I wouldn’t get out of bed. There are good things happening, but the demands for resources, for energy, for water, for space, for food are staggering. We must do better in our vision and efficiencies.

If my mind goes there then there is no point in continuing. I have two daughters, two grandchildren. I sincerely love people and want improvement. I’m not finished yet.

What difference can one person make, if any?

There is no measure of what one person might accomplish. That is all I need to know. I do focus locally on my community and region.

What do you know now that you wished you had known as a young adult?

Patience, better listening in order to understand all the points of view, focus, build bridges – don’t burn them.

What advice would you give to someone interested in protecting the planet?

Go for it! Now! The Earth and all of us who ride it together need you.

Does art and literature have a place in conservation and environmental protection? Why?

Yes. Artists can create unique works in many kinds of media that allow others to come to understand things in different ways and points of view. Throughout time artists and writers have contributed in priceless ways to the betterment of society and our Earth.

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