Conway trout hatchery moves one step closer

‘We need the Mono Monsters,’ says Hunt

An unusual alliance among the Eastern Sierra Land Trust, Mono County, and Caltrans this past week paved the way toward solving a series of complex issues that has prevented Conway Ranch from building a state-of-the-art fish hatchery.

At a breakthrough meeting of the Mono County Fisheries Commission in June Lake on Monday, April 8, commissioners reached consensus on a proposal whereby the Eastern Sierra Land Trust would oversee environmental protections on a 75-acre parcel of land.

The players at the meeting have not always been on good terms.

In fact, a lawsuit is pending against the county after a private company that had hoped to build a viable fish hatchery and fish-rearing business on the county-owned ranch claimed it had not been told ranch regulations would not allow such a project.

The company, called Inland Aquaculture Group (IAG), was once headed by Tim Alpers, who developed the Alpers Trout brand, and who has since divested himself of all connections to the group.

For the past few years, IAG, the county, and other groups involved in Conway Ranch, including Caltrans, which helped the county buy the ranch more than a decade ago, have been at loggerheads over whether a fish hatchery is legal on the ranch.

The consensus reached last week means the proposal for a building that would contain a hatchery could move forward, pending a formal memorandum of understanding (MOU), along with a $95,800 settlement with Caltrans, whose grant money helped pay for the ranch in the first place.

“We want to get to the finish line,” said county attorney Marshall Rudolph, who delivered a carefully crafted summary of where negotiations now lie.

“We have a proposed deal.”

If the deal can, in fact, cross the finish line, it means Conway Ranch and the Inland Aquaculture Group can build a barn-like hatchery to raise Alpers Trout on site.

For Tim Alpers, an original partner in IAG who resigned before his successful campaign to win a seat on the Mono County Board of Supervisors, a settlement cannot come too soon.

He said Mono County’s fishing industry is dependent on trophy trout if the county’s summer tourism is to grow and flourish.

Mono County Supervisor Byng Hunt echoed Alpers’ position.

“We need Alpers Trout,” he said. “We need the Mono Monsters.”

Hunt said a settlement is critical.

“This is the only opportunity we have,” he said. “If we don’t do this, we go back to court and litigation.”

The lynchpin player in the Conway drama, which began in 1998 and accelerated in 2010, was the entrance of the Eastern Sierra Land Trust, which agreed to take on the responsibility for keeping the area free of harmful environmental impacts, from visual impacts to water quality to riparian habitat.

The impacts to the environment caused by IAG were the reason why Caltrans, in 2010, alleged violations of some of the stipulations of the grant.

Tom Hallenbeck, the Caltrans regional director, attended the meeting at the June Lake Community Center, and said he was agreeable to all the major points that were outlined by Rudolph.

According to Rudolph, the finish line is in sight, possibly by May.

“This,” he said, “gets us to where we want to be.”