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Land ownership squabble closes hatcheries

By Carl Mickelson February 17, 2007 Coos County, theworldlink.com

The Morgan Creek Hatchery on the Coos River will be closed until further notice. Land owners won’t allow STEP volunteers to access the property because of a dispute — curtailing salmon releases for the year. World Photos by Madeline Steege

COOS BAY - The release of more than 1.3 million Chinook salmon once destined to feed the booming local sportfishing industry remains questionable this year due to landowner disputes that shut down two local hatcheries.

The dispute at Daniel's Creek is the latest in a series of setbacks that's caused its frustrated caretaker, the burly 68-year-old Larry Cruthers, to destroy his labor of love for the last 16 years.

About two weeks ago, Cruthers dismantled the guts of the Daniel's Creek hatchery, which has helped feed more than 20 million Chinook into the waters of Coos Bay and beyond.

Several rolling ravines away at the Morgan Creek fish hatchery, a separate dispute, that ignited nearly two years ago, has silenced that existing hatchery for the time being, causing volunteers there to pin future salmon release hopes on a yet-to-be-completed million dollar hatchery embroiled in legal wranglings.

Both acts have sent Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife officials scrambling to find new homes for the immature Chinook, which account for more than one-third of the salmon output scheduled to be released later this year. The hatchery-raised fish bolster populations in not only the Coos Bay estuary, but for commercial salmon fishing fleets as well.

An uphill battle

“There's no more. It's gone forever,” said Cruthers, the man who's spent the last 16 years of his life coddling fish at Daniel's Creek.

After 20 years of traveling freely to the hatchery via an access road, a nearby landowner, David Schmidt, has refused to allow Salmon Trout Enhancement Program volunteers to continue using it. A segment of the road crosses onto Schmidt's property. Schmidt declined to be interviewed for this story but ODF&W officials said in earlier talks with him, Schmidt expressed liability concerns about someone being injured on his stretch of the roadway.

To get to the property now, volunteers must build a bridge across Daniel's Creek, an undertaking that Coos River STEP leaders say isn't going to happen.

For years, no one lived on the land now inhabited by Schmidt. Cruthers said he has a state permit allowing STEP to take water from a pond on Schmidt's property, critical to the hatchery operation. But Schmidt, who lives just up the hill from the hatchery, put the brakes on that as well, said ODF&W District Manager Mike Gray.


The action, which boiled over last November, was the last straw for Cruthers. Rather than fight it, Cruthers, with the blessing of Coos River STEP president Harold Brown, decided to call it quits.

Gray informed Coos River STEP volunteers this week that he attempted to broker a deal last fall between Schmidt and Cruthers, but the landowners' discussion quickly spiraled into legal threats, causing senior state officials to advise Gray to back away from the private land beef.

“We were not in a position to get in the middle of that,” Gray said.

In retrospect, Brown said, while he still stands by Cruthers' actions, he wished both Cruthers and Schmidt, who for a short time donated the service of his backhoe and money to Coos River STEP, could have handled the situation differently.

Over the last two years, Cruthers said, he's encountered numerous obstacles to his dream of reaching a goal of releasing 30 million fish. In 2005, ODF&W triggered an investigation by Oregon State Police wildlife authorities, alleging Cruthers and another STEP member violated fish laws. While the charges were eventually dismissed by the Coos County District Attorney's Office, many of the 190 members in Coos River STEP felt betrayed.

“I'm tired of fighting, even if I did start the hatchery,” Cruthers said. “This has been a big mess. Enough. Enough of this.”

Cruthers said his motive to take apart the hatchery was simple: anger.

“Mad. M-A-D,” he said, noting a straw poll of Coos River STEP members last month did not shake out anyone willing to spend four to five months a year living in a trailer at the hatchery like he does.

What Gray dubbed an emergency situation at the two hatcheries has left ODF&W searching for alternate STEP facilities to rear, incubate and acclimatize the fish. While some “homes” have been found, officials still are working to solidify venues to care for the fish at the different stages of their life cycle, until their release.

“It's not totally resolved yet,” Gray said. “It's kind of an emergency or interim scenario on how to rear those and how to acclimate them. We're still going to try to get the same numbers out.”

The department hopes to release 2.2 million salmon into the Coos Basin this year, he said. Now, the salmon once scheduled for the Daniel's Creek hatchery - hundreds of thousands of them are for Noble Creek - are sitting in impromptu hatch boxes in the Noble Creek parking lot.

While the increase will be a hardship, Brown said he believes STEP can handle it for now.

Roadblock at Morgan Creek

Problems abound for the salmon scheduled to be released this year from the Morgan Creek hatchery as well.

The existing hatchery, consisting of a spawning building, office, storage areas and a 100-foot-long raceway resides on property owned by Than and Nicole Examilotis. They've allowed volunteers from the Southwest Oregon Chapter of the Northwest Steelheaders to use the hatchery in the past.

But no longer.

They've locked the Steelheaders, and newly formed Coos County STEP Commission volunteers out. Without access to the hatchery, the 645,000 salmon to be released from Morgan Creek remain in greater doubt than at Daniels Creek.

The Examilotis' and other nearby landowners are opposed to the Steelheaders' purchase of 40 acres of nearby property, where a new building with a classroom and a salmon raceway is being constructed.

While the trouble at Daniel's Creek never flowed into a courtroom, the troubles at Morgan Creek have.

Early last year, Coos County Planning Department Director Patty Everenden approved the new development at Morgan Creek, deeming it a permitted use that did not require notification be sent out to neighbors. But the neighbors say they should have got a say in the deal. They hired Dan Stotter, a Eugene attorney to appeal the county decision. The matter is pending before the state Land Use Board of Appeals. During an interview earlier this week, Stotter said the Examilotis' have a signed agreement with ODF&W stating the parties must agree to expansion at the hatchery.

“Any expansion requires my clients' consent,” Stotter said. “My clients do not consent,” noting it looks as if the matter is headed to a civil suit.

Furthermore, many of the neighbors have written to the Oregon Department of State Lands indicating their opposition to the new hatchery project, focusing on concerns over increased traffic, the stink that emanates from hatcheries and potential adverse impacts to local water levels.

“They don't want people going in there anymore,” Gray said. “It's a different situation (compared to Daniel's Creek) but the same result as far as needing a place to rear fish and to bring them back to be acclimated.”

He said he hopes the matter will be ironed out so the salmon project can be resurrected next year.

“It remains to be seen whether that timeline is feasible or not,” Gray said. “I don't know how long it will take.”

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