| Trouble in paradise with Conway Ranch Hatchery
Conflict with CalTrans emerges
One doesn’t like to put a downer on an opening day, especially since the Sierra opening weekend was coupled with the long-awaited news that old Osama Bin Ladin was finally nailed, and I had pretty good time like everyone else. But there’s a worrisome development in the Sierra. It seems that the Conway Ranch above Lee Vining is raising the hackles of Cal Trans, which for five years has been a partner in the Conway Ranch partnership, a 12,000-acre parcel that was once designated for resort development.
When first unveiled in 2005 or so, I thought this venture between Mono County, hatchery man Tim Alpers and his two partners, BLM and CalTrans was the perfect mesh of public and private enterprise. The historic Conway Ranch would stay undeveloped to the shore of Mono Lake and a tiny area would be used by the county. It's worked out just as planned. Tim and his two partners raise fish on several runways on 200 acres and have ponds they charge people to fish, and the money goes to a nonprofit set up to keep the ranch in pristine shape and the water clean and moving. Mono County worked the deal between agencies, including the BLM, to keep the land undeveloped, and put up a million bucks about five years ago to help buy the land, and Cal Trans put up a few million. That’s a simple explanation. But that’s about it.
Mono doesn’t charge cash for rent to make it work for them. It gets 10,000 pounds of trout worth $30,000 a year for its lakes as “rent” and the rest of the fish Tim and his partners raise is sold to counties, marinas and concessionaires to attract fishing business, for profit. There's some hatchery science going on, too. For example the DFG is working with the hatchery to see if large-scale cutthroat production is possible. The rest of the land, 11,800 acres is natural, although sheep graze on another small segment with rent paid to the county to offset the taxes and loan to buy the land. All is good?
Well, everything looked great until around December when out of the blue a CalTrans official called Tim Alpers and said there was too much development. Not what they expected. The fish runways, the catch ponds, the handicapped ramp and tiny wood deck the gravel roads. It was all too visible from Conway Summit. An inspection was followed by another CT letter that basically says the hatchery and the private enterprise is in default of the agreement or land deed.
The situation now is that the hatchery is still in operation, but there's way to expand, and if the hatchery can't expand as planned, it's not such a great investment.
“We’ve followed the agreement to the letter of the law,” said Alpers on Friday before the opener. “The water is purified, we used the old farming irrigation ditches for the runways, and you can’t even see it from the summit" Alpers said that attitude, even if the hatchery were truly visible from high onrConway Summit of nearby Highway 395, is confounding. "Cal Trans had no problem putting in an ugly metal gravel shed a mile past the summit that everyone can see for miles.”
While angry, and a little worried his and partners' $1 million investment and work over 5 years will be lost (or at the very least he won't able to expand from his current level of 25,000 to 30,000 pounds annually), he’s confident that Mono County will work it out with CalTrans. From his standpoint, he hopes pressure on CalTrans from the angling public and the county will change the minds of CalTrans officials. The greater question we all have, including this reporter, is "How did this snafu happen five years later?" Who complained? Tim has his hunches. Clearly it’s another effort at enviros to stop planting fish in the Sierra streams and lakes.
“That’s their goal, relegate hatchery fish to suburban park lakes,” said Tim who added that all plans have been public, and all approved at every level. Now this. Is a lawsuit brewing between the dream team that joined forces five years ago?
Alpers avoided the question. “There obviously was not due diligence on the part of someone. It wasn’t me. All I want to do is raise fish, and I just want to say we built this hatchery as a 50-year hatchery, so long after I’m gone the county and the Sierra have something.”
Without the Conway Ranch hatchery, the Sierra is largely dependent on the DFG planting program. Alpers asked, “And who knows what direction that will take in the coming years?"
Add to the above: Perhaps the real issue that has stoked the fire, is the use of water. Read page 9 of the Mono Lake Committee's Newsletter for their concerns about the diversions. Also, the two letters from CalTrans and Mono County.
EDITOR’S SIERRA NOTES
Adopt-A-Creek’s founder Ron Scira, owner of Creekside RV Park on Bishop Creek, is bowing out as the lead dog in the fundraising efforts that for 15 years has raised funds to purchase and plant big Alpers fish in Bishop Creek and lakes Intake II and North Lake. The organization will go on but Scira and his wife Donna want to spend more time with grandchildren. The concept has been, “plant big fish and more people will come” They have. Trouble is, Upper Deck Trading Co. has hit hard times and can’t afford to donate $20,000 a year as it has for 15 years, and now it’s up to merchants and private individuals to donate. Show producer Bart Hall gave the group space in his recent show in Long Beach and 300 members were signed up. You can donate too at www.adoptacreek.org and as Ron says, “We aren’t going anywhere.” Nearly every dime is put back into fish. Last year $27,500 bought Alpers fish for the lakes and creek. The planting schedule for 2011 is: South Fork of Bishop Creek and Intake II—April 30, May 13 and 2, June 14, July 15, Aug. 1 and 20, Oct. 7 and 21. For Middle Fork and North Lake—May 6, June 2 and 17, July 8 and 22, Aug. 5 and 19, Sept. 2, 16 and 30, Oct. 14 and 28.
THEREWERE 19 WARDENS on the beat opening weekend. I can live with that. For the most part they were friendly and nice to have around as long as you were adhering to the law. The DFG is always looked at nervously in regards to its hatchery commitment, but kudos to the biologists who worked to open lakes last year to hatchery fish while studies on the endangered bird the willow gnatcatcher were undertaken for each Sierra water. This year, all is good, and trout plants by the stateare up 12 percent. See more in Martin’s column this week.
THE AUTOMATED license purchase was, as expected, confusing to many. Traditional license purchase shops along 395 did not have licenses for sale by machine, and paper is no longer an option, and thus lines before opening day were long with the Friday rush for those shops who did have the machines. Ernie’s had a steady line of up to 19 people waiting. Many people just did not know. Best advice is to buy them before you come up, goingon line on the DFG website (http://www.dfg.ca.gov/licensing/) or purchase at a local retailer. It will take a few years to work out the kinks. At least we don’t have to wear them any more.
CORY SHIOZAKI’s 20-minute segment of his soon-to-be completed documentary Barbed Wire to Barbed Hooks in the Manzanar Japanese internment camp during World War II was spectacular, shown at the Bishop Chamber’s press dinner Friday night at Whiskey Creek.Many people saw shorter, rougher versions of the film at the tackle shows in Del Mar and Long Beach with exhibits of tackle used by the internees as they snuck out to fish Owens Valley creeks and even the back country. It is a story that needed to be told, and Cory uncovered it. When completed, it will make the rounds of the film festivals, then shown commercially.