Boots on the Ground is a Flylords interview series highlighting individuals working locally to protect, restore, and enhance some pretty fishy places. For our third installment, we check in with Tracy Brown, who works for Trout Unlimited (TU) restoring and protecting trout waters as TU’s Northeastern Restoration Coordinator. We caught up with Tracy and her team at a recent tree planting on the banks of the Little Beaver Kill River, to get our hands dirty while building riparian buffers and to learn more about Tracy’s impact and passion for the Northeast’s coldwater resources.
We first got in touch with Tracy and her team in late December as we began planning for our interview with her and her team. Tracy and her crew primarily focus on the cold water rivers of New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont. As the Restoration Manager, for the region, Tracy is responsible for a team of TU staff and passionate volunteers dedicated to restoring the historic waters of the region, where American fly fishing first took root and developed centuries ago. As our conversation continued, Tracy invited us to join her team and a group of volunteers on a tree-planting project creating riparian buffers along a section of the Little Beaver Kill just outside Livingston Manor.
The Little Beaver Kill is a headwater of the Delaware and begins high up in the Catskill mountains. Its cold waters have made the Catskills region famous as they snake over hillsides, and through valleys tumbling towards the main stem of Delaware that begins at the Junction Pool in Hancock, NY. The Catskills and its many famous blue lines are household names in the fly fishing world, made famous by family names like Wulff, Dette, and Darbee. The rolling green hills and deep valleys are also home to some of the most prolific bug hatches and wild trout waters in the East, which Tracy and her team are working hard to restore and protect along with a few other passionate stakeholders in the region.
This is where we first met up with Tracy on the water in person. As I pulled into the site, Tracy was directing the site’s contractor as he prepared the river banks for the coming day’s tree planting project. Alongside Tracy were her two main staff on the project Caroline Shepler, the New York Field Technician for the Northeast Coldwater Habitat Program, and Jesse Vadala, Tracy’s Engagement Coordinator, who were hard at work scattering potted trees around the freshly tilled soil to make the next day’s project go smoothly. It was a typical Trout Unlimited scene, with hard-working staff preparing a site for the onslaught of excited volunteers eager to make an impact on their local watershed. Due to Jesse’s hard work, the team expected around 30 volunteers the next day who would tackle the challenge of planting over 400 trees.
Before, during, and after the project, Tracy’s passion for her work was apparent, as was her abundant humility. We sat down with Tracy, Jesse, and Caroline to learn more about their project goals, and the impact they’re making on the Catskills region in the name of coldwater conservation.
Flylords: What is your role and title in this area for TU?
Tracy: My title is Restoration Manager for New York and Connecticut. I also manage the folks that are working in Massachusetts and Vermont. I function as the project coordinator on the Delaware River where I handle project coordination and manage our crew.
We do a lot of work in the Hudson, kind of the Taconic range, a lot of the work that we were just talking about, the culvert replacement.
Basically, my role is just making sure that we have funding for all of our staff, our crew, and our projects, making sure everyone has what they need, and doing everything else in between.
FL: What are Trout Unlimited’s overarching goals for this specific region and the Catskills in general?
Tracy: We’re focused on native species like the brook trout. We work to improve strongholds for the species and provide that habitat redundancy across the landscape. Where we get the biggest impact is through culvert replacements where we can open up miles of habitat, expanding strongholds for the fish and increasing stream connectivity.
But I would say that also wild trout, and brown trout in this area is really important to the economy and to the fishermen. We work hard to reconnect and expand the current habitat for both wild brown trout and native brook trout to reduce competition and provide stream connectivity so brook trout don’t have to be relegated just to the headwaters, they can move through and utilize the big rivers like they normally would.
FL: Have you started to see those economic benefits of improved fishing, improved habitat, just excited anglers, and landowners?
Tracy: I think so, and even the towns and then our contractors, like Rick, he’s done enough projects. He’s a total advocate for us. Initially, I would be like, you guys are crazy, and he did tell us, you guys are crazy. This is never going to work. And then he’s like, “Oh wow. It did work.”
So when we see that with the town highway folks too, they’re saying, “Oh can you come out and look at this crossing? I don’t know what size to do.” You’re already out there, you might as well do it right, and be able to benefit fish.
But we don’t go in with the conversation of fish. The conversation is about resiliency and how we can work together.
Flylords: Tell us about this specific project on the Little Beaverkill
Tracy: Kevin reached out to both myself and one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saying, “What can you do?” He heard about us because we worked with Rick, a contractor on another project. So, we came out, did a site visit, and came up with a plan. This particular stretch of the Little Beaverkill had been studied by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps for about five years. They had come up with a full restoration plan, but it was in the magnitude of like $3.5 million. No way in hell would that ever happen, right? But, we just started moving it forward, just U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they kind of helped with the NPA process, and then we do the permitting, and Joanne and Jan did the design work, and then Rick did the installation.
What was really fun about this particular planting was the number of people and the diversity of the group. We had kids, we had older folks, we had younger folks and people with babies. It was awesome. We even had some dogs in the mix.
Just like how it takes countless headwaters to form a larger waterway downstream, Tracy’s work would not be possible without the team below her that keeps everything running. In order to get the full picture of this project and Tracy’s impact on the region, we chatted with her Engagement Coordinator, Jesse, and Field Technician, Caroline, to get some insight into what working with Tracy is like, and how their work helps amplify TU’s work in the region.
Caroline Shepler – Field Technician – Northeast Coldwater Habitat Program
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about yourself
Caroline: I’m the New York Field Technician for the Northeast Coldwater Habitat Program with Trout Unlimited. I helped with the project here at the Little Beaverkill, as far as planting, helping Jesse coordinate the planting, and reaching out to landowners and our volunteer members. Mostly what I do is the data collection that entails fish surveys, so going out to electrofishing perspective project sites.
We do temperature monitoring with HOBO loggers, as well as a DTS system, which is a distributed temperature sensing fiber optic cable. That actually helps us detect groundwater, where the temp loggers help us just get the overall temperature about once an hour, every hour, for as long as we have them out.
We also do culvert assessments using the NAC protocol. So if there’s a spot, a culvert, that a town, or to you, a member, a landowner, what be it is concerned about, we’ll go out. If it’s part of a tributary to a major stream, it gets put high on the list. If it’s a barrier, obviously, high on the list. So we use that protocol to determine if it’s a barrier, and then we do the fish survey to see if there are trout there.
FL: What are sort of long-term implications of the data you’re collecting? What are the conclusions you’re hoping to come to?
Caroline: Most of the data’s pre-construction, and post-construction. So like with the Little Beaverkill here, we came out, we had pre-construction photos, sampling. Our streams restoration specialist comes out and she does a whole survey of the stream. And that’s how she comes up with the design and whatnot.
So we collect data for pre-construction and then there’s post-construction data. And we can keep collecting that through the years and further proving that our restoration project or our covert replacement works. So if we have what it looked like a couple of years before we did it, we do two or three years of pre-construction data, and then we’ll just continue to do post-construction, and we can just prove what we do works, helps the trout.
So that’s the goal, is to make it look like we did… To prove what we did, worked.
FL: What is your favorite project you’ve been involved in during your three years with TU?
Caroline: So when I first started, it was really exciting. I got involved with the upper east branch of the Delaware River and I was doing a lot of trout tracking, tracking their movement, which was really fun. Interesting.
We would build what we call RFIDs, which are radio frequency identification units. And we would put pit tags in the trout. If they swam through our RFID antenna, we knew exactly what fish it was. So when we put this pit tag in this one trout, we know the size of it, the species, the weight, and obviously we know where it’s coming from. So we were able to track them all throughout the Upper East Branch, which was really cool. It was really exciting, and it’s just eyeopening to see really where these trout move because it’s a very warm stretch, and it’s mixed stocked and wild brown trout, and then there’s some brook trout in there. So it’s just interesting to see how the stocked act compared to the wild, and how the brookies do with the competition.
Jesse Vadala – Engagement Coordinator
Last but not least on Tracy’s core team is Jesse Vadala, the most recent member of the crew, who focuses on community engagement and volunteer recruitment as Tracy’s Engagement Coordinator. Jesse was nearly wholly responsible for the number of awesome volunteers who gave up their Saturday to benefit the Little Beaverkill and improve trout habitat.
Flylords: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your position working with Tracy? How did you get started working with Trout Unlimited?
Jesse: Connecticut & New York. My background is centered on community outreach and grassroots marketing. I love the outdoors, have been wandering creeks looking for trout my whole life, and feel incredibly fortunate to have this opportunity at TU to share that passion with our supporters and fellow volunteers. I’m helping to develop a communication and outreach program to support our efforts in both states. You can find me in person supporting these events and sharing highlights from around the region on social media ( @tu_northeast). I work most directly with our volunteer chapters, state council leaders, and partners at adjacent conservation-focused organizations. While planting trees on the Battenkill as a TU volunteer last year, I learned about an available position for an Engagement Coordinator. I went home and applied that night, and feel quite thankful to have been selected for the gig.
Flylords: What is Trout Unlimited’s ultimate goal in the Catskills and your region?
Jesse: I think the Catskills represents the history and future of Trout Unlimited. Our rivers and streams are home to wild fish and host to centuries of unique and intimate encounters. They have inspired catalogs of tributes from celebrated authors, anglers, musicians, illustrators, painters, photographers, and more. Trout Unlimited’s presence in the Catskills is a community-focused concept that includes direction from Tracy Brown, the New York State Council, and direct support from three local volunteer chapters who are all welcoming new members and supporting a variety of TU stream restoration projects. Fans of legendary Catskill rivers like the Delaware, Neversink, and Willowemoc will want to stay tuned for some exciting habitat improvement opportunities in the seasons to come.
Flylords: As the Engagement coordinator for your region, what all went into gathering the volunteers for this project?
Jesse: The “Plant For Our Future” campaign is an ongoing TU effort that encourages locals to get together and plant native trees around their streams and rivers. For our planting on the Little Beaver Kill, friends from several counties across New York joined together for some perfect spring weather and feel-good fieldwork. Several local businesses and organizations helped in promoting the event including Friends of the Upper Delaware, Mid-Hudson TU, The Smoke Joint, Catskill Brewery, The Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum, and more.
Flylords: What are your favorite things about working with Tracy?
Jesse: In just a few short months on staff at TU, I have found working with Tracy to be extremely inspiring. Tracy’s dedication and intelligence are only rivaled by her humility. While balancing it all, she remains present and compassionate with everyone she meets. We are all quite lucky to be working alongside her in pursuit of some incredible landmarks in Northeast conservation. I look forward to helping share some of that exciting narrative along the way.
If you would like to get involved in conservation work to help protect our cold-water fisheries go to TU.org to find your local Trout Unlimited chapter!