For this Boots on The Ground series, we head to North Carolina to meet with Jeff Wright and get involved with a culvert removal and improvement project. Jeff is Trout Unlimited’s Southern Appalachians Project Manager. Follow along to learn more about Jeff and some of the projects he’s working on.
Flylords: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Jeff: I grew up on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri. While we were close to the suburbs, we lived in a much more rural area. At one point, my family had about 200 acres and I spent a lot of time playing around in the woods. As I got older, I got to see the impacts of urbanization as a lot of open space was converted into subdivisions and shopping centers. I think this connection to nature combined with seeing the tangible impacts of development really fueled my interest in conservation. After high school, I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, receiving my BS and MS in Biology with a focus on wildlife. My intentions have always been to have a career in conservation but the path there has had some unexpected turns. My family moved to northeast Tennessee in 2015 for my wife’s job and I was looking for a way to get involved with a conservation group and do some hands-on work. That’s how I got involved with Trout Unlimited. As the common story goes, I volunteered for the local board and soon after became chapter president. This experience combined with my educational background and work in volunteer management helped me land my staff position with the organization.
Flylords: Can you tell us why the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is so special?
Jeff: The thing that makes Southern Appalachian Brook Trout stand out to me is that they have been able to stay on the landscape despite humanity throwing a lot of challenges their way. Native fish in the Southeast have made it through the eras of unsustainable logging, acid rain, and a barely regulated mining industry, and are still here. This is our connection to hundreds of thousands of years of brook trout populations that came and went without human involvement. I think that type of connection with ecological history is very meaningful. I personally believe that we should take action now to rectify some of the impacts society has had on these types of native species.
Flylords: What is the goal of the Alarka Headwaters Project?
Jeff: The goal of this project is to address one of the remaining issues for Brook Trout, connectivity. When any road crosses a stream, there must be some sort of crossing structure there. Traditional structures focused on handling water volume but did not address the ecological function of the stream. Many times, crossing structures like corrugated metal pipes create a head cut and become perched above the stream. Fish and other aquatic species cannot move through these crossings and the population is essentially cut in two.
On Alarka, we are replacing a double CMP crossing with an open-bottom arch. The open-bottom arch is wide enough to span beyond the banks of the stream and has a natural stream bottom running through it. Not only does this allow for better connectivity, but these crossings actually handle flood-level flows better and pass materials like downed trees better. Additionally, this project should reduce the amount of sediment coming from the road and entering the stream.
Flylords: What challenges have you faced trying to restore this native habitat?
Jeff: Funding can be a major challenge. It takes a good bit of money to get the work done and TU taps into a lot of different sources. For this project, we have support from Dominion Energy Foundation, Little Tennessee Native Fish Conservation Partnership, Tennessee Valley Authority, Mainspring Conservation Trust, Wildlands Engineering, Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and National Forests in North Carolina.
Our work also tends to be in tough-to-reach areas. That creates a lot of logistical issues that you might not have in spots that are easier to reach.
Finally, there is no shortage of work to do. You have to be able to identify the high-priority projects so you are spending money in the best way possible.
Flylords: You have done work all over the Southeast protecting this fish. How have you seen populations respond to projects TU is working on?
Jeff: We don’t often get to see the tangible products of our work but there is a lot of research out there that shows the benefits of reconnection and sediment reduction. It is neat to see Brook Trout moving through a place where they previously could not.
Flylords: What is the overarching goal of TU’s work in the Southeast?
Jeff: To advance TU’s mission for native and wild trout in the region. That mission is bringing together diverse interests to care for and recover rivers and streams, so our children can experience the joy of wild and native trout and salmon.
Flylords: How can people get involved in the projects you are working on?
Jeff: Get involved with a local chapter. We try and work directly with chapters who are interested in the areas where projects happen. Chapters are good at letting their members know about upcoming opportunities and promoting the work staff are doing. We couldn’t get many of our projects done without these grassroots volunteers.
Thank you Jeff for sharing your work with us on an incredible fall day in the South! If you are interested in getting more involved CLICK HERE.
All Photos from Dave Fason.