You know you’re in the Eastern Sierra when … This photo taken at La Quinta Inn in downtown Bishop. (Photo courtesy Mike Garver)
Does Tim Alpers still run the happiest fish hatchery on Earth?
In 2006, Tim Alpers whimsically referred to his new Conway Ranch facility as “Fishneyland.” Located north of Lee Vining at the foot of Conway Summit, his goal was to preserve his family’s trout farming legacy, and recreate and expand on the old Alpers hatchery he had recently sold.
Since it began operation, the Conway Ranch has raised and sold fish for waters all over the Eastern Sierra and beyond. It also serves as a location for new fishermen of all ages and abilities to learn proper catch and release technique.
Revenue taken in by the on-site fishing programs goes to the upkeep of the historic property’s 1,000 acres.
Although Alpers may well be the contemporary angling equivalent of Walt Disney, his Fishneyland isn’t the “happiest place on Earth” at the moment. Alpers’ woes bubbled to the surface last year when he and his partners in the Inland Aquaculture Group (IAG) proposed construction of a barn-like building, which would on the outside appear to be a vintage-looking structure that would blend in with the property’s historic motif. On the inside, however, would be a state-of-the-art egg hatching and rearing facility, along with an interpretive and visitor center. Mono County ran the idea by Caltrans, which almost immediately ran up a series of red flags.
One of several grant partners involved in the Conway Ranch site and facility, Caltrans had provided $1.35 million to the County to purchase part of the property, about $200,000 of which covered the Ranch’s fish farming operation.
Caltrans has objected to the Ranch’s storage containers and a trailer on site, saying they mar the view from the Summit, a claim Alpers dismisses. “You can’t really see them from the summit, much less U.S. 395,” Alpers responded. “But have you seen that sand shed they’re building at the top of the grade?” He has railed against the new building being built right off U.S. 395, just above Mono Lake, near the Virginia Lakes turnoff.
The two containers and moveable trailer on the property (which is used for day-to-day business operation) are temporary, and as such don’t require any permitting, either under the terms of the grant or County ordinance.
Mono County Counsel Marshall Rudolph said the County’s position is that the current Ranch operation is within the permitted conditions of the grant. “The grant’s language allows ‘fish rearing in existing ditches,’ which is exactly what we’re doing,” Alpers said. Caltrans says the proposed building isn’t covered under the grant, but Rudolph said it’s not clear whether the proposed barn building does or doesn’t meet the grant’s criteria.
Caltrans also claims it has issues with the Ranch’s protection and preservation of the nearby wetlands and riparian habitat, as well as the mule deer migration pathways.
“We’re caring for the riparian life and the wetlands, moving water out into it, and irrigating property for sheep grazing, and we’ve done nothing to negatively impact the deer migration corridor,” Alpers told The Sheet.
Late last year, a letter summarizing all of Caltrans’ formal complaints was sent from Transportation Enhancement Coordinator John Haynes to Rudolph, who has been reviewing the Caltrans-Conway Ranch standoff at length in the months since. “There’s a dispute, Caltrans has issues and we’re trying to work that out,” Rudolph said. Future plans for the new building may or may not be scaled back, he acknowledged. In the meantime, all involved are treading lightly while discussions continue.
Mono County District 4 Supervisor Tim Hansen pointed to a recent series of meetings in Bishop at which Mono County and Caltrans were both at the table. “Seems to me we’ve made a lot of progress,” Hansen opined. “If [Caltrans] wanted to get our attention, I’d say they got it.”
Caltrans spokesman Bryan Winzenread agreed with Hansen. “We’ve had very productive talks,” he said, referring to the Bishop meetings. “Caltrans has concerns about the grant, but we’re working with [Mono] County to determine if the activities and buildings are consistent with what’s permitted under the grant.”
Reality is that it’s not just Caltrans Alpers has to worry about, Rudolph said. There are other grants, such as those from the State Parks Department and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation on the property that would have to approve the barn facility. “It’s going to take time and the other agencies might say no,” Rudolph commented. “Caltrans was simply the first one we approached about the barn proposal. It’s entirely up in the air as to how and whether it can even happen.”
Whatever does happen, Alpers and the Conway Ranch crew hope it’s soon. “It’s taking too long. This should have been cleared up a long time ago,” he said. “We can’t use new wells or explore other ditches, and until an agreement is reached, the hatchery is incomplete. Our goal has always been to build a stand-alone hatchery, and all we can do now is bring in outside fish, put ‘em in the raceways, get some weight on ‘em and sell ‘em. It’s not really that profitable yet; in fact, it’s still something of a money loser.”
Conway Ranch hasn’t been without its share of short-term accomplishments. According to Mono County Economic Development Director Dan Lyster, while the harsh winter this past season claimed more than 8,000 pounds of trout, nearly all of the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout survived, and the new Bell Diversion pipeline soon to be installed should help avert future water problems during particularly cold times of the year. Alpers has also successfully covered the Ranch’s expenses since 2007, and maintained five salaried employees on staff.
“It’s important to create jobs, especially in unincorporated Mono County, but also to produce a quality product that helps Mono County pursue its goal of controlling its own destiny, especially as concerns fishing,” Alpers pointed out. “[Late District 4 County Supervisor] Bill Reid and Andrea Mead Lawrence, rest their souls, they had the vision. Bill understood the importance of fishing to the north county, and Andrea loved the idea of the site being kept as open space and conserving its resources.”
Meanwhile, a 15-year plan laid out in 2005 is stalled, and IAG’s partners are already invested well in excess of $1 million. And that’s before restoration of the Conway house and putting in the new interpretive center and other parts, including walking trails tied to an educational kiosk, an important facet of Conway Ranch’s mission. “Future generations should know the history of the trout, which is one of the most enduring and oldest creatures on Earth. It’s truly one of nature’s great marvels,” Alpers related.
“When a child fishes, the world wins. We have to teach them about resources and conservation, and keeping habitats pristine. Put an Alpers trout on the end of child’s line, they get excited and they never forget the experience. This [the Conway Ranch concept] is how that gets done.”
According to a recent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Caltrans Bishop District Director Tom Hallenbeck said anything done on the Conway Ranch should be “consistent with the viewshed,” but added his office is certainly “pro-fishing and pro-Alpers.” That’s fine with Alpers, who said he harbors no ill will toward Caltrans, which he called one of the great road building entities since the Roman Empire. “There’s a lot riding on this, but I still see it as win-win,” he added.