FAIRBANKS — President Obama’s budget proposal for the coming fiscal year eliminates funding for the federal agricultural research station in Alaska, including a Fairbanks office that employs 19 people.
The proposal calls for a cut of $42 million to the Agricultural Research Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That cut would eliminate 10 offices around the country, including the Subarctic ARS station headquartered in Fairbanks.
The funding cut would also close smaller ARS sites in Palmer and Kodiak. Fairbanks research leader Alberto Pantoja said the closures would eliminate 24 jobs in the state, along with several positions for graduate students.
Meredith Kenny, the spokeswoman for Rep. Don Young, cautioned that Obama’s proposal should be viewed as a “suggestion,” since only Congress has the power to appropriate money. If the funding isn’t added, however, the local ARS office will close on Sept. 30.
Aides for both U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich said the senators are concerned by the closure proposal but that the current budget-cutting focus in Washington makes such moves a sign of the times.
“Sen. Murkowski will work to see that Alaska is treated fairly as the budget process moves forward,” spokesman Mike Brumas said.
The Subarctic ARS office must be restored with an earmark, according to Begich spokeswoman Julie Hasquet, and the ongoing earmark ban in Congress will make it difficult to find those funds.
“It’s a different game in D.C. now with the earmark ban,” Hasquet stated in an e-mail. “Although Sen. Begich has stated many times he does not support the ban, it’s the new reality.”
Hasquet said Begich will argue that Alaska agriculture is so unique that research done in other parts of the country won’t be able to replace it.
If the Fairbanks ARS station does close, the work that is under way would either be transferred to the University of Alaska Fairbanks or to another ARS location.
The agency does a variety of research, with roles that vary depending on location. The Fairbanks office studies invasive plants and insects in Alaska, while the Palmer station focuses on collecting plant samples that are important to Alaska. The Kodiak office has studied ways of using fish waste for agriculture.
Steve Sparrow, the associate dean at the UAF School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, said his department has structured its staff to avoid duplication with ARS personnel. For example, it doesn’t have weed or pest specialists because those areas are being studied by the local ARS office. Because of that, he said UAF couldn’t easily pick up some ARS research such as an ongoing project to study what potato varieties grow best in Alaska.
“Some things we could take over,” Sparrow said. “A lot of things we’d probably just have to stop doing.”
The proposal to cut local ARS funding comes less than a year after the Fairbanks office began work on a new $1.2 million research greenhouse complex on Geist Road. ARS staff will move into offices in the unfinished building in a few weeks. Construction on a pair of adjoining 50-by-25-foot greenhouses will still proceed in April, Pantoja said.
The greenhouse complex is designed to allow year-round research of invasive plant and insect species, letting scientists expand their work beyond projects suitable only for Interior Alaska’s brief summer.
Pantoja said he has no choice but to proceed as if the local ARS work will continue.
“We’re moving forward,” he said. “We’re assuming the funding will be there and we’ll still be in this position next year.”
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.