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Eastern Sierra town of Bishop tries to reel in more tourists

Outdoor recreation is big business in Bishop, but the economic downturn and Mother Nature have taken a toll on merchants. Those that cater to hikers and campers are bouncing back, but those specializing in fishing gear are still struggling because of the late snow melt.

July 14, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • Anthony Kernazitskas, right, his wife, Mandie, and sons David and William (not shown) begin a five-day backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada near Bishop. The city gets about 70% of its revenue from outdoor recreation tourists.
Anthony Kernazitskas, right, his wife, Mandie, and sons David and William… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

One in a series of occasional stories

At Wilson's Eastside Sports in the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop, employees have been ringing up sales at a hectic pace lately as rock climbers, hikers and mountaineers stock up for the summer season.

But a few blocks away, Brock's Flyfishing Specialists was quiet and empty on a recent Saturday afternoon, the victim of dismal fishing conditions around the Owens Valley.

Heavy snow this winter kept several mountain lakes frozen long into spring, and an early-summer heat wave had created a torrent of snowmelt in nearby streams and rivers. "The busiest season should be now," complained Gary Gunsolley, owner of the fly-fishing shop. But fishing has begun to improve.

Outdoor recreation plays a vital role in California's economy, generating an estimated $44 billion in spending annually. But perhaps nowhere in the state are the great outdoors more important to the local economy than in rural towns like Bishop, Wrightwood, Truckee and others that turned to tourism when mining, lumber and similar industries all but dried up.

Bishop, population 3,500, is the best-known of the towns dotting U.S. 395, along the base of the Eastern Sierra. It is also a key refueling stop for Southern California motorists looking to ski, fish, camp or hike in the forests, peaks and valleys along the Golden State's eastern stretch.

As with other towns that depend on the spending of outdoor enthusiasts, Bishop's prosperity is tied to the nation's economic wellbeing but also to the whims of Mother Nature.

For local merchants, hungry trout and pleasant weather for hiking and camping — particularly in the summer — are as important to the town's fortunes as the nation's unemployment rate and a strong consumer confidence index.

"Outdoor recreation is our bread and butter," said Tawni Thomson, executive director of the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau. "If it's a stellar weather report, we'll see an increase in business."

Almost 70% of Bishop's revenue comes from tourist spending in hotels, restaurants, grocery stores and sporting goods shops. Bishop's hotel bed tax alone generated $2.2 million last year, or about a third of the city's total general fund revenue. Within the town's two square miles are about two dozen hotels and lodges.

During the day, Bishop's main drag is clogged with pickups pulling trailers and boats or hauling mountain bikes. Crowds pack Erick Schat's Bakkery, a Dutch-themed eatery on 395, to buy cakes, rolls, strudel and the bakery's popular Sheepherder bread.

At one time, nearly every shop along the interstate was family-run. Today, several chain restaurants and hotels have taken root among the mom-and-pop stores.

And while the nation's economic downturn has taken its toll on nearly every business in Bishop, some merchants are bouncing back faster than others.

"Our business has been growing steady," said James Wilson, owner of Wilson's Eastside Sports, a downtown retailer that specializes in rock climbing, mountaineering and camping gear. "We've had an uptick for the past six months."

On the next block, sales have also been picking up at Sage to Summit, a specialty running store that sponsors several high-altitude races in the nearby Sierra Nevada.

"This month we are up considerably over the same month last year," said store manager Jeff Kozak.

But the shops that specialize in fishing gear endured slow sales this spring and earlier this summer because heavy snowfall this winter impeded access to mountain fishing resorts in the Sierra, where the snowpack was 165% of normal levels.

In addition, the state Department of Fish and Game delayed planting fish for up to two weeks in several low-elevation lakes because of ice on the lakes.

At Culver's Sporting Goods, owner Dave Smith said business was down about 30% from 2007, his best year. He blames an unseasonably long winter and continuing economic worries among tourists. "People are only buying the bare essentials here, which is better than nothing," he said.

Located in the valley between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains, Bishop has depended on outdoor recreation for its survival since U.S. 395 from Southern California to Inyo County was paved in the 1920s.

Within a few miles of downtown Bishop, visitors can access dozens of fishing lakes, creeks and streams, campsites and trails that lead into the 581,000-acre John Muir Wilderness and Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states.

Bishop also draws tourists passing through to ski at Mammoth Mountain or camp in Yosemite National Park. The town gets its biggest crowds during the Memorial Day weekend, when it holds the Mule Days Celebration, a festival that kicks off the packing season and features mule races and other mule contests.

The event has attracted as many as 30,000 visitors, but this year it drew fewer than 20,000. Locals blame the low turnout on the teetering economy and fears over an outbreak of an equine virus.

This summer, Tony Lopez brought his wife and eight children and grandchildren to Bishop from Los Angeles to a private campground a few miles outside town.

He complained that his trip cost him more than $200 for fuel, and he struck out while fishing several lakes north of Mammoth Mountain. "The fishing conditions are really bad this year," Lopez said.

But he looked out over the grassy campgrounds in the shade of towering cottonwood, red willow and black oak trees and said he will probably return to Bishop later this summer.

"It's just so beautiful up here."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

About this series

This is one of a series of occasional articles about the effect of California's outdoors on the state's economy.

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