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Mammoth Dog Teams hopes New Year will offer answers

December 21, 2012

Jim Ouimet and his dogs. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

Mammoth Dog Teams owner Jim Ouimet and his several dozen husky dogs have been without a permanent place to call home since 2003—and he’s going to have to wait until at least 2013 for that to change.

“We will be bringing this up to the supervisors probably around the middle of January, with a staff analysis and the bids we have already done in hand,” said Jim Arkens, Mono County’s administrator.

Arkens spoke this week, after the outgoing board of supervisors punted another decision about the dogsled business to the incoming board that will take its seat in January.

At stake is the future of one of the most unique businesses in the region, if not the country—and a piece of history as well.

Jim Ouimet has run his popular dogsled business in the region many years, giving rides through the pristine Mammoth backcountry to hundreds of adults and children during that time.

It’s one of the only functioning dogsled teams in the state and Ouimet takes pride in the fact that his team was founded and built upon the example set by the first men to mush huskies across the Sierra, bringing mail and supplies from one side to the other, over some of the most rugged terrain in the country.

But in 2003, Ouimet was forced out of a lease on the land where the industrial park across from the airport lies after the park was developed. Finding a home for 40-plus howling huskies was not easy and it took a while.

After much searching, he landed on a piece of county land off of Casa Diablo Road, near the geothermal plant, on a plot of land that once housed the sheriff’s substation.

At first, things went well for Ouimet.

The snows came and he ran the dogs down by the Smokey Bear Flat area, where he had a permit with the U.S. Forest Service. He housed a museum and some living quarters in one of the buildings on the county property and the visitors came in a steady stream.

But in 2007, he was turned out of the building by the county on lease violations that prohibited living in the building—but only after he had run the museum and business out of the building without county interference or alarm for many years.

Since then, Ouimet has been waiting for the county to make a decision about a permanent home for him and his dogs. Does the county rehabilitate the old cinderblock building to allow him to legally inhabit it? Does it come up with an alternative, such as the temporary mobile home he now uses?

When the Mammoth Times spoke to Ouimet after yet another recent Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting agenda item regarding his fate that ended with no action, he was tired and frustrated.

“I can’t believe we are at this point again,” he said.

He said he’s done a lot of work on the property over the years, waiting, hoping, and it’s nearly made him go broke.

“I’m so in debt to friends and family at this point, I’m not sure when I’ll get out,” he said.

The issue this time was that the bids to rehabilitate the old cinderblock building were coming in at about $130,000—far more than the supervisors were willing to pay. But other alternatives—such as the cost of providing a mobile home with a viable sewage and water source—have not been thoroughly analyzed.

Arkens said so far the county has only been directed to focus staff time on the rehabilitation issue, but he did mention creating a long-term mobile home hookup to sewer and potable water (the water in the current well is laced with arsenic and bacteria) could be reviewed, if the county supervisors so directed.

But he is skeptical, of both the reasoning and viability of helping Ouimet, who is a private business owner.
“I will do as the supervisors direct, but I don’t believe we could do it cheaper in house and, I’m not sure I understand why we would be so involved in helping a private business owner,” he said.

In the past, the county supervisors have noted that the dogsled business is more than just a private business—it’s something of a “public good”—a definition that allows the supervisors to get more involved in working with Ouimet. Because the business is so unique, Ouimet’s business has great potential as a tourist attraction and that could benefit the county economy as a whole.

“I don’t understand why we can’t do this in house, both the analysis and the work, for a lot cheaper,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston, who was sharply critical of the board’s inaction on the issue.

Johnston also suggested the county look at its affordable housing fund, and see if it could tap that for a mobile home.

Three new supervisors will join the board and will take up the issue next year.

Note: In the print version of this story, the Mammoth Times referred to Mammoth Dog Teams as Mammoth Doglsed Adventures, which is the previous name of the business. The Mammoth Times regrets the error.

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