The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 9, 2013

Outgoing Ag Commissioner recommends elimination of Black Fly spraying program

Newly-elected Helmick disagrees with Douglass' action that also calls for a reduction in gypsy moth treatments

CHARLESTON — Swarms of aggravating black flies might have free rein to terrorize folks in a large swath of southern West Virginia next summer, if a control program is abandoned to meet budgetary constraints.

Before exiting his office, longtime Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass proposed a total elimination of the black fly spray mission, cutting expenses in the coming fiscal year by $722,756.

Initially, says Mike McKown, director of the Department of Revenue’s Budget Office, the commissioner sought to slice the program by only $186,650, dropping it to $536,106.

That, however, failed to meet Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mandatory 7.5 percent rollback imposed on all state agencies.

Douglass then decided to scrap the black fly program altogether, while also eliminating $198,000 from the $1.5 million gypsy moth treatment program.

His successor, former Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, isn’t about to sit still for either cut.

To his way of thinking, both programs are vital and serve hand-in-glove not only with agriculture needs but with tourism and the timber industry as well.

Helmick says it would be “extremely difficult” to abandon the black fly program, one that releases Bti on the New, Greenbrier and Bluestone rivers weekly from early spring to late summer.

The program began in the 1980s with the leadership of former House Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh.

“It touches so many different lives down there,” Helmick said Wednesday, as he prepared to leave his Senate office and move into the agriculture department.

Helmick acknowledged that the black fly program — almost three quarters of a million dollars — is no cheap venture.

“But it’s not a lot of money in the big scheme of things when you see how much good it does,” he said.

“And when you look at protecting a significant industry — tourism. It goes beyond the tourism industry. It goes into the lives of so many people down there.”

Until airborne treatments of Bti began to be sprayed on the waters in the Hinton area, folks as far away as Beckley complained of gnat swarms and the inability to enjoy outdoor activities such as backyard barbecues and golf outings because of them.

Initially, an environmental group, Save Our Mountains, based in Hinton, fought the program in court but lost in a decision. Even so, the group maintained its resistance to dumping Bti into the streams.

Helmick said the move toward either trimming the program, or dropping it altogether, isn’t a new one.

“Every time you see a scare of money — and this is one of those — you will see a proposal made that would eliminate the black fly program,” he said.

Helmick is adamant the state cannot afford to drop either the fly spraying or efforts to curb the gypsy moth’s war on hardwoods.

“We have to find some other place in the budget to cut the 7.5 percent, rather than those two programs,” he said.

Amy Shuler-Goodwin, communications director for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, emphasized that no proposed cuts have been approved by the chief executive, and all remain under review.

“We’re talking tourism, which is one of those things we speak so highly of and need to put so much emphasis, moving forward into diversification,” Helmick said.

“That (elimination) would be a major lick there.”

Helmick said the gypsy moth program is vital not only to protect certain hardwoods but to make a statement that West Virginia isn’t about to surrender to the voracious appetite of the insect in its sweep through the mountains.

Dropping the two programs no doubt would be “a quick fix” to meet the 7.5 percent budget cuts.

“But the consequences would not be good for the state of West Virginia,” the new commissioner said.

“Times are changing. Agriculture and tourism are interwoven. We’ve got to look at the whole picture.”

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