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Landers: Vocational education opportunity at Colville hatchery

Thu., Jan. 3, 2013, midnight

Stevens County commissioners and a vocational teacher say getting into a cutthroat business could spawn a rainbow of opportunity for area students.

On Jan. 11, the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission, during its meeting in Olympia, will consider a proposal to sell the Colville Fish Hatchery to the county.

“This is probably the biggest deal that’s happened in my career,” said Jono Esvelt, Kettle Falls High School’s agricultural education instructor for 19 years. “It could be Washington’s flagship program for a new direction in vocational education.”

The state closed the hatchery in June after the last trucks delivered rainbow and cutthroat trout to northeastern Washington fishing lakes the hatchery site has served for 100 years.

W. L. and Minnie Sax of Colville sold the land to the county for $150 in 1918. The deed stipulates that a hatchery established on the property around 1913 be continued.

The county sold the land to the state in 1933, when a statewide initiative transferred fish and wildlife management authority from the counties to the new voter-created Washington Game Department. The state upgraded the hatchery in 1944.

In recent years, the hatchery staff has raised 400,000 to 600,000 cutthroat and rainbow trout and kokanee for recreational fishing at about 60 lakes in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. But the facility has been eyed for closure off and on for about 15 years as the Department of Fish and Wildlife has dealt with budget woes.

The Colville Confederated Tribes supplemented the operation in 1999 and then in 2000 with additional help from the Pend Oreille County PUD.

The Tribe stepped up again starting in 2009 with $108,000 to $114,000 a year to fund hatchery operations for sport anglers as well as tribal members, but the agreement was never intended to be permanent.

“It’s come to where we just can’t justify its ($120,000 a year) cost,” said John Whalen, the Fish and Wildlife Department’s regional fisheries manager in Spokane. Closing the hatchery will save the agency about $88,000 in annual staffing and $28,000 in electrical costs for pumping water, he said.

The hatchery has a water right for 1 cubic foot per second that must be pumped. The department says it gets more fish for its bucks by upgrading the Ford and Spokane hatcheries, which have flows of 8 cfs and 25 cfs respectively.

But locally, the hatchery property is priceless. The water rights, hatchery facilities (including a residence) and the 19.4 acres within the city of Colville is a steal at the appraised value of $150,000, said Malcom Friedman, former Stevens County Commissioner.

Friedman said the county bounced around ideas for keeping the hatchery from closing through the 12 years he served on the commission. It’s more than a matter of pride that he helped work out the proposal to buy the facility as his third term ended this week.

“This was my backyard when I as a little kid,” he said, noting how he played on the grounds and was allowed by hatchery workers to look at the fish in their races.

The long-term plan involves creating a non-profit group and board of directors to work with area schools to operate the hatchery, he said.

“Once it’s in production, the county could make its payments in fish,” he said. “We can arrange to sell a certain amount of fish back to the state. Excess production could be sold on the open market to people who want to stock their private lakes.”

The Fish and Wildlife Department is holding a required meeting next Thursday, 5 p.m.-7 p.m., in its Colville field office, 577 S. Main, to explain the proposal to sell the hatchery as surplus property.

But Esvelt the educator has been looking at the project as though it’s a go for the past year. He’s already:

• Applied for grants to convert the hatchery shop into an on-site classroom.

• Convinced Spokane-based NEWTECH Skill Center to make the hatchery a branch campus in partnership with area high schools.

• Visited two Oregon school districts that run fish hatcheries and found them “very enthusiastic about the results they produce for students.”

A part-time caretaker would be required, possibly funded with cheap rent at the house that’s on the property, Friedman said. But Esvelt said the students would be in charge of raising the fish.

“They would learn hatchery management skills, which could land them a job,” Esvelt said. “They’ll have to clean the tanks and feed the fish.

“They’ll learn all the science that goes into fisheries, from the microorganisms in the creeks to fish diseases. They’ll develop the math that goes into the feed ratio for desired fish growth.

“Kids on this track will be able to earn two vocational credits and one science credit in a year.”

The 19.4 acres of forest around the hatchery would become a laboratory for natural resources and wildlife sciences, he added.

Students would be uniquely educated; the state would still have fish in proximity for a short-haul to lakes such as Browns, Frater and Halfmoon. “This is a real deal for everyone,” Esvelt said.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email richl@spokesman.com.



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