By Mannix Porterfield
New Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick began poring over his budget Friday, looking for ways to restore all or part of the funding of a black fly spray program in southern West Virginia and still meet a mandatory 7.5 percent rollback in spending by state agencies.
Before leaving office, former Commissioner Gus Douglass elected to abandon the $722,756 account that finances the spraying of Bti along the New, Greenbrier and Bluestone rivers from early spring to late summer.
Riverfront villagers led lawmakers decades ago to approve a control program, complaining that swarms of gnats make life miserable during the warm months.
Buddy Davidson, communications director for the agency, said the new commissioner wants to return some of the funding “because he understands the importance of that program to the people of that area.”
“I don’t know exactly how much that will be at this point,” he said.
“His budget proposal will be formalized and out there before too long. I can’t speculate beyond that. There will be something in there. Obviously, it’s going to be enough to do something.”
Douglass at first tried to pare down the black fly spray account by $186,650 but that didn’t satisfy the spending cut that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin imposed last year on all state agencies. So, the former commissioner then decided to drop the program altogether.
“That is an important program,” Davidson said.
“We do have insect experts on staff that work on that program. It’s huge for the tourism industry down there.”
The program hasn’t been without its detractors. At the outset, an environmental group, Save Our Mountains, challenged it unsuccessfully in court on grounds it would disrupt the natural food chain of aquatic life. Later, the group, along with some longtime residents of Hinton, maintained that the fish population in the New River had diminished substantially after years of Bti treatments.
Davidson said he saw firsthand the complaints tourists and residents alike voice about the gnats.
“One day I was down there to do my story on the program and the gnats just kept getting me,” he said.
“I was right below the (Bluestone) dam and it was horrible. They eat you alive.”
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