By Mannix Porterfield
Treating southern West Virginia streams with natural bacteria to control pesky black flies in the heat of spring and summer is vital to tourism and farming, Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick insisted Thursday.
Helmick stood on a beach of the New River to outline his reasons for leaving the annual account intact while a helicopter made several runs behind him, unleashing Bti to repel the gnats.
Before he took office, his predecessor, Gus Douglass, proposed a major slice in the program to heed Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mandated 7.5 percent budget cut across all state agencies.
But Helmick told reporters it didn’t take him long to reverse that policy.
“We cannot do that because it has such a positive effect upon this section of West Virginia and the tourism industry, the agriculture industry, any activity outside,” he said.
“The black fly has a negative impact.”
What’s more, he said, the troublesome insect isn’t merely a problem on the banks of the New River but extends his annoying habit of biting folks into Greenbrier and into his home county of Pocahontas.
“You can’t have outside activity if you don’t do some treatment,” he said.
As it has since its inception in the mid-1980s, the program sprays Bti, or Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis, a bacteria that occurs naturally in the soil.
Based on the advice of experts, Helmick said the substance isn’t harmful to either humans or aquatic life.
Environmentalists for years have rigorously opposed the spraying, saying it does impose harm on the fish and might even pose some risks for humans. One group once sued unsuccessfully to halt the applications.
“I’m told by the professionals the technical application is totally safe for aquatic life and humans,” he said.
Helmick said the black fly account contains some $700,000, the full funding, and means the New, Greenbrier and Bluestone rivers will be sprayed weekly through early fall, as long as weather permits.
Not only did the tentative budget he inherited call for cuts in Bti treatment but also provided some curtailment of another program — the gypsy moth.
“That’s another insect, one that does significant damage to the timber industry,” Helmick said.
Given his longtime service as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, the commissioner said he would have worked with southern lawmakers to maintain the funding of both programs, had they been in jeopardy when the budget was made up.
“This is not the first time it (cutting) has been proposed,” he said of black fly spraying.
“It’s one of those things that gets on the chopping block from time to time. I just felt so strongly about it that it was not on the agenda to trade. It was simply something that had to be done.”
Helmick has never been in the midst of a black fly swarm but said he has been told often by those who have “that it’s almost unbelievable when they’re indeed swarming.”
With some 43,000 people employed by the tourism industry statewide, Helmick said programs such as the spraying are vital.
“In this case, the river here is the draw for tourism,” he said.
“The river itself will support a great deal. But it won’t support if there is such a thing as the black fly that sometimes consumes the whole area at a given time, which is basically all summer long. It migrates for some distance. It’s an insect that discourages that type of industry. It also discourages farming, agriculture. There’s a lot of that in this area. We intend to expand that industry.”
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