Hatchery manager Norm Heil shows Sen. Lamar Alexander rainbow trout eggs collected at the hatchery in Erwin during a tour of the facility Wednesday afternoon. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
ERWIN — U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said some have asked him why a U.S. senator would spend time on an issue like fishing.
“I say ‘Anybody who has to ask a question like that doesn’t know very much about the state of Tennessee,’” he said. “We have 900,000 people with fishing licenses in Tennessee, and they take it pretty seriously. We have more people with fishing licenses than vote in some of our statewide elections, so it’s part of my job to make sure we continue to enjoy the great American outdoors, and part of that is keeping good fishing.”
Alexander was in Erwin on Wednesday to visit the Erwin National Fish Hatchery for the first time since he helped broker a deal that would keep the Erwin facility and other hatcheries facing closure due to federal budget cuts open for at least the next three years.
“I’m here to express my support and say I’m going to continue to work,” Alexander said.
The Erwin National Fish Hatchery, as well as the state’s other national hatchery, the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery in Celina, has faced closure in recent years due to proposed budget cuts. According to an agreement announced in May by Alexander, the TVA will provide more than $900,000 per year year over the next three years to support federal fish hatchery operations that provide trout stocking programs in tailwaters and reservoirs of a dozen TVA dams in Tennessee and Georgia. This agreement was signed by the TVA, U.S. Fish & WIldlife Service, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
While Alexander said the TVA has a “responsbility” to mitigate fish its dams destroy, he commended the agency’s participation in the agreement. He said without the TVA’s contribution, keeping the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery and the Erwin National Fish Hatchery open would have proven difficult.
“My goal is to keep the fish hatchery open, and I want to compliment TVA for working with the U.S. wildlife agencies and state wildlife agencies on a three-year agreement that will keep the Dale Hollow hatchery and the Erwin fish hatchery open,” Alexander said.
The Erwin National Fish Hatchery, which opened in the 1890s, produces millions of rainbow trout eggs annually - 16 million in 2012 - that are shipped to federal, state and tribal hatcheries throughout the country. But Alexander said the hatchery is much more. He said the facility, along with the Unicoi County Heritage Museum and Clinchfield Railroad Museum on the grounds, which he also toured Wednesday, serves as a “community center for a beautiful part of Tennessee.”
“This is an important part of the heritage of Unicoi County, and I want to do my best to work with the wildlife agencies to keep it open,” Alexander said.
Alexander said officials are unsure what will come after the expiration of the three-year agreement. However, he said legislators and agencies involved are continuing to work toward a long-term solution.
“We do know that the group that negotiated the three-year agreement - TVA and state and federal wildlife agencies and others - went to work immediately to see what they could do after,” Alexander said. “Now, there’s a lot of budget pressure in the federal government, and so that makes it a difficult problem to solve. Hopefully, by the time they get through negotiating, we can do a better job of arranging the federal financing and get some of the mandatory spending under control so we can fund other issues that are important, like this one.”
The senator also pledged to continue his work with other lawmakers and agencies involved to keep the federal hatcheries open. Alexander said he will continue to encourage this group’s work and work himself to see that federal appropriations that include the Erwin National Fish Hatchery will be in place each year.
“We’ll try everything,” Alexander said. “We’re making no promises except that we’re going to work hard.”
Erwin National Fish Hatchery Manager Norm Heil said those at the hatchery are appreciative of the efforts of Alexander and other legislators.
“So far, he’s been doing real good for us, and we hope to still be here the next few years,” Heil said. “...I don’t think we’re in any trouble at all. Right now, it looks good.”
With last year’s announcement that a portion of the Rocky Fork area is set to become Tennessee’s 55th state park, Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said maintaining operations of the Erwin hatchery is not only important for the economic benefits it provides to the area and country, but also as a cog in the county’s efforts to bolster tourism.
“We’re very appreciative of Sen. Alexander and his efforts toward Unicoi County,” Lynch said. “He, along with the governor and other representatives, are responsible for bringing that state park in. This is a piece of the puzzle here that we’ll have to keep in place in order for Unicoi County to have a sustainable tourism economy.”
Alexander also said the Erwin National Hatchery is an important component of the county’s ecotourism efforts.
“People like to go to places that are fun, that are interesting and that are pleasant,” Alexander said. “When you add up Rocky Fork and the Apple Festival, the fish hatchery, and the natural beauty of Unicoi County and the new highways that give you such easy access to Erwin and Unicoi County, I think that’s a recipe for a bigger tax base over the next several years.”