For decades, a muscular sculpture of three leaping, gape-mouthed trout has perched at the entrance to Lake Tahoe's west shore in Tahoe City, offering homage to the alpine basin’s wildlife and its natural environment.
Now, the artwork is days from extinction. Crews this week will disassemble it and place it in a warehouse indefinitely, perhaps permanently, even though no one really wants it to happen.
The problem: The artist who created the 20-foot-tall piece and local transportation officials are feuding.
Officials have began a multimillion-dollar redo of "the wye" intersection where Highway 89 from Truckee meets the lakeshore Highway 28 in Tahoe City.
They plan involves building a roundabout there as part of a larger project that includes two new bridges to ease congestion.
But the sculpture, a spruce tree, a flagpole and a time capsule are on a traffic island that is in the way and must be moved.
Tahoe Transportation District officials say they had hoped to put the sculpture back as the centerpiece of the project in the middle of the roundabout when they finish.
But the sculpture's artist, John Betts, a 62-year-old west shore resident and retired archaeology consultant, says no. He doesn't want the sculpture moved.
Betts built the piece in the mid-1970s as an aspiring young sculptor, using a live trout as a model. He offered it for free to Tahoe officials and they put it up in the intersection island.
Since then it has become the backdrop for many tourist photos.
Betts argues that as the artist, he retains ownership of the sculpture and does not give his permission for it to come down. The two sides have gone back and forth for several years with no resolution.
"They have been rude and hostile," Betts said. "They just want to bully me and run over me."
He says he believes he has legal rights under state and federal public art laws to withhold his approval to move the statue to a new spot.
Bottom line, he said, he doesn't trust the local authorities. He believes they disrespect the artwork, and they disrespect him. He's not a fan of the roundabout project, either, seeing it as an invitation to more traffic and development on Tahoe’s west shore.
For their part, Tahoe transportation officials say they tried to persuade Betts that they are serious about giving the sculpture a new home — in fact, a better one, they say — where it will be more visible to more travelers.
"Our thoughts were that this was in keeping with what it was originally created for," said Carl Hasty, head of the Tahoe Transportation District. "That it becomes a very nice feature in the roundabout welcoming you into Tahoe City."
Hasty said authorities agree that Betts has the right to say yes or no to a new placement for the sculpture. But they feel they have the right to take it down to make room for the new roadway.
The sculpture likely will be disassembled this week. The fish will be bubble-wrapped for protection, and each boulder will be marked for reassembly, if the two sides can come to an agreement.
Otherwise, he said, they will dispose of it.
Betts has contacted an attorney. But he made one recent offer of his own to the Tahoe authorities.
In a January letter, he restated his desire that the statue stay right where it is. But, he said, he's willing to sign a waiver of his rights and allow it to be relocated if the local or state authorities agree to compensate him for his art.
His asking price: $8 million.
He says he feels insulted to have to put it in monetary terms, but added, "some people think art is valuable."
Hasty, head of the transportation district, says he thinks the sculpture is "pretty cool." But no, he doesn't have that kind of money.