Hatchery Stays Open, but Case Not Shut

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four top California Department of Fish and Game officials were rebuked by angry Eastern Sierra citizens for the department's arrogance and insensitivity in proposing last month to close the historic Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery at Independence.

And that was after the DFG had changed its mind.

Whitney will stay open. For now. And then maybe it will become an interpretive center or a fishing museum.

Not good enough. Not since the early part of the century when local activists bombed L.A. water installations had an issue gotten folks in this region so riled.

For more than five hours, about two dozen people from a standing-room-only crowd of 360 at the Tri-County Fairgrounds got three minutes each to lambaste the DFG.

Margaret Mairs, whose family has run Mairs Market in Independence for most of this century, presented the officials with a four-inch stack of petitions bearing 10,604 signatures opposing the proposed closure--that from a two-county region with 28,000 residents. She set them in front of Mitch Zak, a refugee of Gov. Pete Wilson's aborted presidential campaign who landed on his feet as the DFG's top information officer.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Jane Fisher, a Bishop City Council member and longtime resident.

Fisher said it was the first time the boards of supervisors of Inyo and Mono counties and the city councils of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes had met in joint session, along with the Inyo-Mono Counties Fish and Game Advisory Commission--none of which was consulted about the proposal.

Mammoth Lakes Councilman Louis de Bottari was part of a delegation that in December went to Sacramento to see DFG officials, including Banky Curtis, one of several politically appointed deputy directors.

"We asked Banky then, 'Do you have any surprises for the Eastern Sierra?' " de Bottari said.

" 'No,' [Curtis replied]. The Whitney closing is one thing, but it's more sinister than that."

Even Mike Haynie, the DFG's Bishop-based supervisor of Eastern Sierra hatcheries, was merely "notified," he said.

But the citizens had no quarrel with Haynie or the DFG's other Eastern Sierra employees, who were silent allies in the attack on the DFG's Sacramento bureaucracy.

"The local hatchery people are doing an excellent job with what they have to work with," Mono County Supervisor Paul Rowan said.

A storm was brewing over the Sierra that morning as Curtis, Zak, chief deputy director Chuck Raysbrook and inland fisheries chief Tim Farley flew in from Sacramento on the DFG's twin-engine Beechcraft, the same plane used to plant golden trout fingerlings in the region's back-country lakes.

There was some thought to planting Curtis, Zak, Raysbrook and Farley in a back-country lake, but first the locals would hear what they had to say.

Inyo County Supervisor Bob Michener chaired the meeting and offered the keynote comment to the visitors: "Your department has a monumental task in front of it because you've lost all credibility with the people of the Eastern Sierra--and I mean all."

Raysbrook was interim director until Feb. 1 when Wilson named his chief deputy cabinet secretary, Jacqueline Schafer, as the first woman to run the DFG.

Raysbrook, speaking from a lengthy script, related what a tough time the DFG is having making ends meet because of its unfunded legislative mandates to safeguard the environment.

But folks in the Eastern Sierra are less concerned about mopping up oil spills and rescuing gnatcatchers than scratching out a living from their No. 1 industry: tourism. When the DFG's special budget reducing task force included the Whitney hatchery in recommended reductions totaling $3.2 million in the 1996-97 fiscal year, it hit too close to home.

"We live and die on recreation," Michener said.

Realtor Dave Smith said 5 million people, by traffic count and most from L.A., travel the Eastern Sierra corridor along U.S. 395 every year to fish, ski, hike, camp or simply enjoy the scenery. About 70,000 stop to visit the hatchery, where they can picnic under the trees and pump dimes into dispensers for their kids to feed the fish.

Inside, they learn that in 1916, Independence residents paid $1,500 to buy the land to give to the state to build the hatchery. The state's second-oldest hatchery, next to Mt. Shasta, which was built in 1888, remains one of the few with any architectural character.

Farley was part of the budget reducing task force. Closing Whitney, he said, would save $200,000.

Wrong. Although Whitney no longer grows fish for planting, from its 20,570 broodstock, including five trout strains, it produces 5.4 million eggs for eight of the state's 13 trout hatcheries--between a third to a half of the state's supply each year.

The task force proposed to buy the eggs from private hatcheries. But they didn't know the price of eggs.

As one of his last acts at Whitney, assistant manager Jim Lindsay, since transferred elsewhere, made some phone calls to determine the feasibility of the plan. Mt. Lassen, the only private hatchery he was able to reach, told him 5.4 million eggs would cost $12.75 a million for a total of $68,850.

By the time other costs were considered, closing Whitney would save only $50,000 to $80,000.

But what really saved the hatchery was when Lassen said it would need two or three years to gear up to that large an order.

And the question remains, if the DFG revives the plan, would a private enterprise risk a major capital expansion on a commitment from a politically driven bureaucracy that has so much trouble managing its money?

Whitney hatchery manager Jim Yarbrough had a better idea. In his office two days after the meeting, he referred to the Fish and Game Operations Manual that would allow the state to go into the fish-egg business.

"We could sell those eggs privately," he said.

Since Whitney now produces many more eggs than it needs--about 22 million total--that excess conceivably could bring in more than $200,000 a year. Whitney could pay its own way.

The only catch is that the manual also says the department can't compete with private enterprise. But where's the competition if the private outfits already have all the business they can handle?

Several citizens complained about how the DFG already had cut hatchery production in recent years--most drastically by 35% in 1982 when the $2 trout stamp on fishing licenses was eliminated and by another 25% in '91 when the daily catch limit was cut from 10 fish to five. Money from the trout stamps was used to operate the hatcheries, thus returning benefits directly to the consumer.

Since then, as trout production has declined, so have license sales.

Raysbrook agreed that the system isn't fair.

"Only 10 to 12% of the public hunts or fishes, and yet our responsibilities cover everything," he said. "The hunters and anglers pay an average of $28 each to support our efforts, whereas the citizens that do all the other things pay only nine cents.

"[But] we can't spend more than is authorized. I'm not much interested in going to jail."

Curtis was contrite.

"What I'm hearing is that Mt. Whitney's value goes beyond its production of eggs," he said, "not only for its historic or sentimental value but because it's a potential asset to enhance production for the Eastern Sierra. That's what we're looking into."

How sincere was he?

After the DFG officials hustled out to catch their plane back to Sacramento, somebody brought Margaret Mairs her stack of petitions. The officials had left it behind.

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