Once designated for a resort development on a historic and scenic land, Mono County’s Conway Ranch Foundation and the new Alpers hatchery will raise fish while preserving a historic scenic corridor
LEE VINING - Tim Alpers led the media tour, slowly walking among long, narrow hatchery runways filled with rainbow trout, proudly showing off the new Conway Ranch facility he’s developing with two partners in cooperation with Mono County. You’d never suspect that about four months ago after a hip replacement, the well-known hatchery “rancher,” former college basketball coach and fisheries political activist had nearly died when strep infection set in after the operation.
“The strep form of infection was bad enough, but if it had been the staph variety, I wouldn’t be here right now talking to you,” he told WON. Nevertheless, he had to be airlifted from Bishop to Reno when his situation became critical. He suffered a relapse a week after this media tour a few days before opening day, but again came through. He’s as tough as his trout. With a new pain-free hip, he walked slowly, and when asked if he could kneel down for a photo near one of his ponds for a photo, he said, “I can’t. Some things I can do, and some I can’t. And that’s one of them right now.”
In many ways, his battle to not just walk again without pain but to stay upright in general parallels the health and future of the Conway Ranch land. Of the 1,037 acres on the ranch, 825 of them are now owned by the county where the fledgling hatchery is taking form. The remaining acreage is BLM’s, for seasonal sheep grazing. It is historic land, the valley once the primary agricultural source for the bustling mining town of Bodie that at one point grew to 30,000 people. When one drives south from Bridgeport down Conway Summit, the Conway Ranch lands below are breathtaking, stretching from the base of the Sierra Nevada to Mono Lake, bisected by the black ribbon of asphalt Highway 395.
At one time the acreage was destined for development. Condos, a golf course, houses and maybe a Starbucks or two. High costs and opposition halted the plan in 1996. The land was sold to a public trust preservation fund soon after. Mono County stepped in to purchase 825 acres of land at the urging of Dan Lyster, Director of Economic Development for Mono County. Lyster and other county officials saw the potential of melding county government and private enterprise. The common goals were simple.
Raise trout, preserve the land.
“This is unique piece of property,” said Lyster. “As people drive down the summit, they see this land, and it’s the calling card to our county. Seeing condos and housing and a shopping area just wasn’t a proper use of the land.” The deal is pretty unique. And seemingly too simple. The county owns the land and leases it to Inland Aquaculture Group (IEG). The group is made up of Alpers, June Lake/Crowley marina concessionaire John Fredricksen and Orange County businessman Steve Brown, who who like many visitors first came to the Sierra as a young boy on fishing trips with his father.
The work is nearly finished on the long, narrow and 4-foot deep plastic-lined runways for raising rainbow and brown trout. The tough, black liners are used to retain precious water and repel bacteria. “One nice thing about these runways is that if we do detect high levels of bacteria, we can pull the trout out, drain the runway and let the sun do its thing on the bacteria. Pristine water is drawn from wells on the property in an sophisticated maze of underground pipes via pumps powered by solar power.
But the unique “deal” is considered a win-win and a first for any county in the state. Inyo County owns the land and keeps it pristine. Meanwhile, Tim Alpers and his partners have a place to raise their fish with no cash “rent, just their substantial investment and a likelihood of solid profits. The county is into this partnership for the long run. Inyo County’s tax base is based on tourism, and nothing brings in the fishermen like big trout. As the state’s economy slips and hatchery fish seem smaller and less plentiful each year, private hatchery operations are equal to the task of supplying what anglers demand.
However, the cost is high, $5 a pound for private trout, and simple math computes that a 5-pound fish costs the county $25 to buy, and the county’s fish planting program buys Alpers for 15 of its accessible Sierra waters. Plant them, and they will come. But there is price to pay.
Thus, instead of the county paying for the “Alpers” trophy trout for Inyo waters, the payment is in bigger fish, 10,000 pounds or at a good-guy rate of $30,000 to $40,000 worth annually. All fixed assets put in by Alpers, such as underground pumps to extract well water for the runways, belong to the county. No permanent structures are allowed. Trailers for offices and equipment and even a cramped gift shop jammed into a 15 footer are camouflaged within a backdrop of high scrub brush. In fact, those traveling on Highway 395 would not know a hatchery facility existed just a few hundreds yards away.
One glitch in the county’s plan to buy the ranch property was the possible lost tax base of the land from its previous owners, said Lyster. That was solved by sheep. Some of the county’s ranch land and the BLM land is being leased by season sheep ranchers for about $15,000 a year to make up for the lost tax rolls.
The county has ambitious plans for the property through its 501c3 Conway Ranch Foundation. A kids learning pond is being built and county-produced fairs or festivals will also utilize the historic property.
So, what will the county really get for its money? For now the Alpers rainbows and an incoming batch of brown trout in a special deep fast-moving runway can offer 3- to 5-pound trout. Eventually, the famous trophy 7 to 10 pounders will be available. All it takes is food and water.
It’s never simple to be green and profitable. There is predation from birds and animals. The long range plan is to create a full hatchery with incubation of eggs, so the group can avoid having to buy the fingerlings. But that takes a structure, and no flimsy trailer can keep out a sniffing bear. A steel cargo structure is one option, but it has it’s own issues, such as ugliness and climate control. But for every problem, Alpers and his staff have created a solution that is cheap – and green.
One such problem proved simple. Tim Alpers’ former hatchery on the upper Owens River he sold a few years ago produced pink-meated trout because its diet of scuds in the natural river water was loaded with vitamin A carotine, the same element found in carrots and many other foods. Hatchery manager Justin Long said the answer is to lace the pellet feed with a beta-carotine supplement.
Simple solutions. All for the benefit of a prized piece of Mono County land and fishermen.
You can learn more about the hatchery at monocounty.org Also, a Tim Alpers update: All signs are he's recovering from his latest battle with strep infection. He's on an antibiotic infusion four times a day and although he’s out of the hospital, he’s staying at a Holiday Inn near the hospital. The old hip replacement was removed and he's scheduled for another hip replacement June 25. He expects to be back home mid-July
Inyo County, City of Bishop, Adopt-A-Creek eye Mono’s plan
BISHOP -- The high cost of buying hatchery trout and Mono County’s partnership with a hatchery business might be tried in Inyo County to the south in the Bishop Drainage area.
Adopt-A-Creek’s Ron Scira said last week his board of directors is interested in creating a nonprofit foundation and building its own hatchery, and will be asking Inyo County and Bishop to donate land to build the hatchery. And will be looking for donations and volunteers.
“We like what Mono County is doing and we think we can do it here,” said Scira, who started Adopt-A-Creek by asking Bishop businesses to donate money to fund hatchery purchases of Alpers trophy trout to attract anglers. “Tim (Alpers) raised his prices to $5 a pound, and that’s a lot. It would be better if we had our own hatchery and raised our own fish, and it would be a better use of the money.” Stay tuned.