In July 28 IssueBy Kim GrahamTimes Journal Reporter
Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery's manager, James Gray was honored July 18th as Federal Land Manager of the Year for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at a national awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.
The Federal Land Manager of the Year award is given annually as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior's Take Pride in America program, a nationwide partnership authorized by Congress to promote the appreciation and stewardship of our nation's public lands.
Gray was honored for his contribution to America's public lands and for utilizing volunteers in creative and innovative ways.
"Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery is a major hub for the Service's efforts to connect people with America's Great Outdoors-through innovative conservation education programs, and by creating opportunities for citizens to share their talents through rewarding volunteer experiences," said Cindy Dohner, the Service's Southeast Regional Director. "We are proud of James and the positive impact he has made in fisheries conservation."
"We are also proud of the people who have played a role in the good work he made possible through his vision and leadership."
Gray said he is happy the award brings national awareness to the hatchery's vital role in conservation, mitigation, and environmental education.
"Any of these awards you get are supposedly individual awards but to me I wasn't necessarily glad that I got it but that it brings attention to the hatchery," Gray said. "That's the main thing especially with the situation we're in now."
Funding cuts in the FY2012 federal budget threaten to close the doors of Wolf Creek NFH and eight other federal hatcheries.
"Any time the hatchery can get some lime light it's always good," said Gray. "I guess if there was ever a year to get the award this is the time to get it to bring attention to the hatchery."
"I think that's the good part of the award."
Positive reinforcement from recognition of the hatchery's contributions may bring reinstated funding by encouraging elected officials to support a bill recently presented by the US House Committee on Appropriations.
The FY12 Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill may restore funding to the endangered hatcheries if approved by the full US House, Senate, and signed by President Obama.
Gray hopes this award and others recently presented to the hatchery and staff will emphasize the importance of keeping the facility open.
"It's hard to close us down if we're the Outstanding Visitor Attraction Experience Southeastern Kentucky," said Gray.
Last May, Wolf Creek NFH was selected as the number one Outstanding Visitor Attraction Experience in the 47 counties of TourSEKY (Tour Southern and Eastern Kentucky), and Environmental Education/Outreach Specialist Amanda Patrick was named as Outstanding Hospitality Personality.
Gray said the efforts of the outstanding team at the hatchery resulted in the most recent recognition.
"These awards, somebody gets their name on them but everybody here adds to it - it's not just one person," Gray said. "Everybody here has a part to play."
Gray and an eight member staff are the driving force behind one of the largest and most successful volunteer programs in the National Fish Hatchery System.
Besides maintaining a demanding fish production program producing one million trout yearly, Gray leads a robust conservation education program with innovative projects.
In 2006, Wolf Creek NFH became home to the first Visitor/Environmental Education Center of its kind located on a working fish hatchery.
The facility receives 100,000 visitors each year and is staffed year round almost entirely with volunteers.
At the hatchery, the visitor center is open every day of the year except Christmas with volunteers logging more than 13,000 volunteer hours in 2010.
"We do rack up some impressive numbers as far as volunteer hours because they work in here eight or nine hours a day, seven days a week," said Gray. "The hours add up pretty quick."
When volunteer hours are converted to money saved, it's pretty impressive he said.
"Volunteers are the only way we can keep the doors open," Gray said.
Typically, the hatchery staffs about 5 volunteer couples in their Workamper program.
In exchange for 20 - 24 hours of service, volunteers receive a free campsite on the hatchery grounds.
Volunteers camp on site and provide services an average of 3 months but can stay as long as a year at the hatchery Gray said.
He said Environmental Education/Outreach Specialist Amanda Patrick oversees the volunteers program at the visitor center.
"When volunteers come here we treat them just like one of the crew, just like the permanent employees for the most part," Gray said. "We give them a lot of responsibilities. They basically run the front desk and the gift shop and do most of the cleaning in the visitor center."
He said volunteers are treated as a part of the team and are entrusted with essential duties in the education center.
Volunteers like the quality of the campsites, the work hours expected of them weekly, and the inclusive, team atmosphere at Wolf Creek NFH he said.
Gray said Patrick has volunteer schedules set now through 2012 and she continues advance scheduling to staff the facility year round.
In addition to helping develop the visitor center, Gray spearheaded the formation of the Friends of Wolf Creek National Fish Hatchery, Inc. which supports the hatchery's environmental education and recreational fishing activities.
The Friends group also sponsors the hatchery's fishing derbies including Kids Catch a Rainbow, one of the largest youth fishing events in the southeast.
Catch a Rainbow, a free event, is supported by many local sponsors and hosts more than 1,300 young anglers and their families.
Besides trout production, conservation education, and volunteer coordination, Gray and his eight-person staff also provide assistance to tribal governments and a refuge for threatened or endangered aquatic species.
"I feel honored to be selected for this award, as I know there are many other deserving individuals across the country," Gray said. " I look at this as not just an individual award, but one that highlights all the great things we do at the hatchery and the great staff I have who work hard every day to provide a service to the American people."