By Ashley Loza
Kern Valley Sun
The Kern River valley’s Friends of the Hatchery (FOH) will be making some major changes after an oversight by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) forced them to close their Fishing and Natural History Museum indefinitely.
FOH met with DFW representatives on Wednesday, March 13, to try to find a path forward.
When the museum at the Kern River Fish Hatchery opened in the mid-‘90s, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the DFW and the FOH that allowed the museum’s operation on the state’s hatchery grounds.
However, the MOU expired in 2002. The current representatives of the DFW and FOH were unaware that it had failed to be renewed, so when the DFW discovered the mistake, the museum had to be closed pending receipt of an updated MOU.
It has been closed since October 2018. FOH President Connie Shepard, who resigned during the meeting, stated that FOH had voluntarily shut the doors to the museum for various reasons, including a dwindling number of volunteers. But when they planned to open back up for Whiskey Flat Days in February, they were told that they could not.
Gerald Hatler, Environmental Program Manager with the DFW, said that he could only classify the issue as an administrative lapse on the DFW’s part.
While the DFW is undergoing the process of updating the MOU, the museum must remain closed to the public. Hatler could not give an estimate for the amount of time it would take the DFW to review the paperwork, but he guessed that it could take at least 6 months.
Hatler clarified that although the agency is grateful to FOH for the work that they’ve done to help the hatchery, the administrative processes of the State of California have changed.
“There’s a way we used to do things, and there’s a way we have to do things now. And it’s totally different,” said Hatler.
“It’s not like how we used to do things with a nod and a handshake. That stuff just can’t happen anymore.”
Hatler said that he would like to bring future plans for the hatchery to FOH and continue to gather their input.
DFW representatives also suggested that FOH members register to be part of the Natural Resource Volunteer Program (NRVP) in order to continue guiding tours and helping the hatchery as needed. The NRVP would allow volunteers to work for the DFW in an official capacity without the added responsibility of maintaining their non-profit status.
However, FOH acknowledged that they would have to seek legal counsel before taking their next step. Currently, their mission statement includes the provision of a Fishing and Natural History Museum, and non-profit organizations must legally maintain consistency between their mission statements and fundraising efforts.
Without a 501(c)3 status, they would also lose the ability to apply for some types of grants.
Additionally, FOH expressed concern over funds that they currently hold. They are unsure for how long they are allowed to hold funds if not actively fundraising, facilitating the need for legal counsel before moving forward.
“We’ve got to go get some advice, but we can no longer collect donation funds without a reason,” said FOH past president Bob Talbot. “We can’t just bank donations.”
FOH was founded in 1994 when the Kern River Hatchery was in danger of closing due to a lack of funding and has been helping the hatchery function ever since. FOH has provided school tours via the Trout in the Classroom program and held Kid’s Fishing Days each year to help educate children about the local environment. The hatchery will celebrate its 91st birthday this year.
“You guys are very important to us,” said Hatler. “This is not about shutting you guys down or hindering what you want to accomplish. It’s about bringing us into compliance with our modern policies and procedures.”
“When we have a group of people who are very enthusiastic about what we do, that means a tremendous amount to us, and I just want you guys to know that.”