Automatic budget cuts threaten trout hatcheries


WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has no “imminent” plan to close any federal fish hatcheries but the facilities are endangered by another round of automatic budget cuts next year unless Congress acts, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said Friday.

Members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation on Thursday wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewel expressing their “grave concern” that her department was working on a study that could potentially close fish hatcheries, including those at Norfork and Greers Ferry in Arkansas.

The lawmakers requested that the Fish and Wildlife Service provide at least a 60-day public comment period from the time such a study is completed before taking any action.

“We believe it is critical that all federal, state, local and private stakeholders be granted this time to both fully evaluate the study and its findings and to adequately prepare for recommendations that may threaten our local economies,” they wrote.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, who spearheaded the letter, said closing the two hatcheries in his district would threaten 1,600 jobs and $150 million in economic activity.

“These facilities return almost a dollar for every penny spent and directly provide hundreds of jobs for Arkansans,” Crawford said.

In an interview Friday, Ashe said that Jewell “has pledged that we are not going to make any imminent closures of facilities.” At the same time, he said, funding for the operation of these hatcheries has not been secured for the 2014 fiscal year.

While Fish and Wildlife plans to continue operating the hatcheries, the agency has in recent years sought to transfer the cost onto the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the locks and dams that disturb the natural fish stock in Arkansas rivers. The Corps is providing $3.8 million this year for the hatcheries and requested $4.7 million for 2014, according to Ashe.

Congress has not approved a 2014 appropriations bill for the Interior Department, and is instead preparing a stopgap measure that would keep the agency funded at current levels through mid-December. The 2014 fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Adding to the budget uncertainty is a second-round of automatic budget cuts that would occur next year.

“We are living under this beast we call sequestration, and so if that comes to pass there will undoubtedly be some reduction in our capacity … which will have an impact on our hatchery operations across the country. There are no two ways around that,” Ashe said.

Signing the letter to Jewel were Crawford, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.; Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.; Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle; Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers; and Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock.