Earlier this spring, I sat down with Trout Unlimited’s CEO and President Chris Wood in what has become an annual tradition. We look back over the past year and highlight key achievements for Trout Unlimited and conservation, but we also look at missed opportunities, the desolate, yet hopeful, condition of certain cold-water fisheries, and new priorities for TU. This year, Chris and I were also able to link up and fish at Fletcher’s Cove in Washington, DC–one of the best urban fisheries in the c country but not without its challenges. Discussion topics ranged from the incredible resiliency of salmon and steelhead, to collaborative conservation solutions, to the balancing act with domestic mining and clean waters. Keep reading to learn what TU accomplished in 2021, where more work is needed, and what’s happening at some local chapters.

Infrastructure Funding

By now, this topic may sound like a broken record for some, but for TU it’s truly difficult to understate the gravity of this funding stream. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in the fall of 2021, was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for conservation and restoration projects for every state in the country. Billions of dollars from this law will go towards natural, ecosystem-based restoration projects, improving our public lands, watersheds, and fisheries. Chris was especially excited.

“I’m as bullish on conservation and restoration now as I have been.”

One area where these investments will be impactful is wildfire mitigation. “It’s an unfortunate reality,” Chris acknowledged, “but for much of the West, drought is the new normal.” Fortunately, there is a lot of productive work to mitigate wildfires and improve habitats thanks to this infrastructure funding. TU is working with the U.S. Forest Service to make landscapes more fire resilient by recovering meadows and riparian areas, which serve as natural firebreaks and have the benefit of improving cold-water habitats.

Exploring the TriBasin Divide on the Grey’s River in Wyoming.

Additionally, Chris highlighted $1 billion for removing and replacing culverts, which have prevented and or stalled anadromous fish migrations for decades. “It’s not sexy, but it’s really important,” Chris noted. “Basically, this money will fund projects to take out those pipes that carry rivers underneath roads that are typically undersized or poorly designed. So, the fish can’t move in response to a flood, fire, or drought, and replacing them with either bottomless arches or bridges.”

These are just some of the ways this law, which was made possible through bipartisan efforts, will improve cold-water habitats throughout the country. Chris concluded his thoughts on this topic by saying, “this bill gives us [the larger ecosystem restoration community] the kind of funding that we’ve never had. I’m as bullish on conservation and restoration now as I have been. That being said, I think it’s going to be hard to spend all that money in five years, but my hope is that we can help the agencies spend this money with a really conservation focused perspective and good things will flow from that!”

Bristol Bay and Tongass

Next up for 2021 accomplishments are the tremendous victories for Bristol Bay and the Tongass National Forest. Obviously, these long-waged battles were some of the TU’s highest priorities–in addition to the larger conservation coalitions–and took an amazing amount of support, resources, and collaboration to see them across the finish line, but both issues are essentially won and done.

The Tongass, and to a lesser extent Pebble Mine, has been a political football for more than two decades. One administration will maintain the Roadless Rule protections, then another will withdraw them, until another one will reinstate them. Without a doubt this is a tireless effort, but when it comes to protecting “America’s Salmon Forest,” TU is all in.

You may remember last summer, the Biden administration announced it would begin the rulemaking process to reinstate the Roadless Rule protections in the Tongass National Forest. “The intent of the 2001 Roadless Rule is to provide lasting protection for inventoried roadless areas within the National Forest System in the context of multiple-use management,” according to the US Forest Service. Currently, the Forest Service is finalizing the rulemaking process, but Roadless Rule protections are expected to be officially restored in the next couple of months.

In regard to Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay, these are both some of those issues that we’ve been following for years. But the campaign to protect Bristol Bay is finally pivoting from a hard-lined defense to the offensive. Even after President Trump rejected Pebble Mine’s permit in 2020, the mine was not fully dead, and Alaska Governor Dunleavy sought to resurrect it with an appeal. Now, the Environmental Protection Agency is working to restore the Clean Water Act Protections in Bristol Bay.

In a recent press release, EPA explained its current position, “EPA Region 10 continues to have reason to believe that the discharge of dredged or fill material associated with mining the Pebble deposit could result in unacceptable adverse effects on important fishery areas.” Restoring this Clean Water Act determination would go a long way to preventing mining and industrial activities from harming Bristol Bay’s incredibly wild and productive watershed.

In addition to advocating for restored Clean Water Act protections in Bristol Bay, TU is also working with Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski to further protect the Bristol Bay watershed. TU and Senator Murkowski’s office are working together, “to craft legislation that would transfer or trade or otherwise get the Bristol Bay area out of state ownership, put it in federal ownership and then, protect the area in perpetuity. This will ensure that we don’t have to have another fight like we just did over the proposed pebble mine,” Chris said.

“So those are two major victories and two long campaigns that really show the power of grassroots conservation. It took a dedicated group of people at the local level to kind of turn those issues into national issues and then they never gave up.”

-Chris Wood

Snake River Progress Stalled

While the Bristol Bay and Tongass campaigns are all but wrapping up in victory, the fight to restore and reconnect the Snake River is hitting barriers. Last year, Congressman Mike Simpson, a conservative Member of Congress from Idaho, released his Salmon and Energy Concept. This was a brand new approach for restoring the Snake River and keeping the communities that have grown dependent on the dams whole. However, since its release in February 2021, the concept has really not made any progress–partly due to politics. Yet, Snake River Restoration remains TU’s highest priority.

“When we started talking to Congress Simpson about this a couple of years ago,” Chris recounted, “I would have predicted that there would have been general support from Democrats in the region. I was completely wrong on that. Other than Representative Earl Blumenauer, the Democrats have not been, frankly, all that engaged with Congressman Simpson’s proposal.”

Headwaters of the Snake River

While that all being true, two prominent western Democrats from Washington, Governor Jay Inslee and Senator Patty Murray, are now working through their own process to develop a plan for the Snake River and its dams. This process was announced in October of 2021 and also included a deadline: “We recognize the urgency of tackling this longstanding challenge as salmon runs continue to decline. Our recommendations will be completed by no later than July 31, 2022,” wrote Governor Inslee. So, movement on Snake River restoration can be expected to pick back up in just a couple months, but tangible progress on the Snake cannot be further delayed.

Chris ended our Snake River discussion by adding, “Congressman Simpson’s Energy and Salmon Concept is not a hasty proposal. This is a well thought out, really considered approach that he’s developed. Can it be improved? Of course it can. And I think that’s what the Congressman is hoping comes out of this Murray-Inslee process.” Because if western Democrats can team up with a conservative Republican for a path forward toward recovering the Snake River, “well, you know, then we’re cooking with gas,” Chris concluded.

Local Projects

In addition to the national-level priorities and accomplishments discussed above, Chris highlighted some of the more local focused projects from coast to coast.

  • TU received $3 million in funds from the Natural Resource Conservation Service to improve habitat and water quality in the Virginian headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay. One of these projects was to stabilize the banks of Mossy Creek, which many Mid-Atlantic trout anglers may recognize. Another project involved fencing off more than 20 miles of streams from livestock.

  • Up in New England, TU has a similar grant to make woody additions to streams in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. This project is aiming to recover almost 60 miles of trout habitat across those states.
Streams where TU and Vermont Fish and Game have added habitat have shown big increases in trout biomass.
  • “For my money, it’s the best native trout fishing in the lower 48.” Chris was talking about the headwaters of the Snake River and TU’s Home Rivers Initiative. The goal of this project is to preemptively restore and protect the relatively intact habitat in the watershed. “By investing in habitat, we can ensure the persistence of native cutthroat trout in this unique place well into the future.”
Exploring the TriBasin Divide on the Grey’s River in Wyoming.

Critical Minerals and Domestic Mining

The United States’ increasing demand for critical minerals and the push to source these resources domestically is one of the pressing issues of the day. It’s no secret, we have a insatiable need for critical minerals such as lithium and cobalt. Whether they are used in our increasingly “smart” devices or in rechargeable batteries–which will play a massive role in our planet’s ability to mitigate climate change and reduce carbon emissions. It’s one of those catch-22 scenarios, because climate change and warming waters will have dire consequences for trout and salmon –and it already is for many regions–but extracting the minerals needed to improve our energy efficiency will also have impacts on these habitats. So, I asked Chris how they’re navigating these challenging times.

Chris highlighted a recent TU report, Critical Minerals: A Path Forward, which makes some Recommendations for how to access these minerals in a sustainable, responsible way. He also added one of the difficult realities, “that something like half of our known critical mineral deposits in the U.S. are actually inside of great trout and salmon habitat, and 10 percent of deposits are on public lands. So, we really wanted to try and get ahead of this issue and work with the administration to identify ‘no fly zones’ and places where mining might make more sense.”

In addition to providing the federal government with recommendations to sustainably and responsibly extract these minerals, Chris also discussed the urgent need to reform the General Mining Law of 1872, the arcane legislation regulating certain mining on U.S. public lands.

“There are two fundamental problems with the 1872 Mining Law,” Chris said. “Unlike every single other use of public lands, the 1872 Mining Law does not allow the relevant agencies, the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, to say ‘no’ to a mine.” Essentially, this law grants a prospector the right to mine if they find a mineral deposit on  public land. “It’s crazy, and it has to change,” Chris added.

The second change needed deals with what happens after the minerals are extracted. “Unlike the production of every other commodity from public lands, every other one, there is no fund to deal with the aftermath of mining and the clean up the legacy of mining. And so, you know we’re really advocating to fix some of the basic infirmities of the 1872 Mining Law.”

And just a couple of days after Chris and I spoke, legislation was introduced in both houses of Congress to modernize this law and the hardrock mining industry–The Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act. The legislation, introduced by Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) as well as other cosponsors, would go a long way towards reforming this law, achieving many of Chris’s priorities too. TU provides more background here.

“We thank Senator Heinrich for recognizing the need to reform America’s outdated 150-year-old mining law. It makes no sense to accelerate domestic critical minerals production before repairing the rotten foundation of the Mining Law,” wrote Chris in the Senator’s press release. “It has long been clear: Land managers need to have the authority to say ‘no’ to a mine that is proposed in the wrong place, and we need funding to clean up abandoned mines polluting thousands of rivers and streams across the West.”

Clean Water Act

The Clean Water Act is another one of those ‘political footballs’ that we’ve written about many times. For fly fishing and healthy watersheds, however, the need for durable protections for small and ephemeral streams is essential. Right now, the Biden administration is working on a rulemaking process to restore certain Clean Water Act protections that the Trump administration rolled back. The hope is to find the right balance.

The expectation is that protections will be restored for these intermittent streams later this year, but then some legal questions with the Supreme Court remain. And part of the reasoning for the Biden administration working to re-write the regulations was because the previous administration’s Clean Water Act rollback did not adequately do the science to define the rule change’s impact. Chris added that a TU peer-reviewed report, which found that “approximately half of all streams in the lower 48 are ephemeral,” likely played a big role.

Chris and TU want to restore the law’s protections for these waterways that were stripped during the Trump administration, but they’re hoping to do it in a collaborative manner with input from all affected communities. So, as the regulatory and legal processes continues, and we should start to get more news early this summer, TU hopes to “play a role in helping them to find the sweet spot, because, to an extent, we do work pretty well with the agricultural community and developers,” Chris concluded.

Local Chapters Leading the Way

It’s no secret that Trout Unlimited supports wild and native trout and salmon fisheries. Heck, TU’s renewed mission statement reads, “Our mission is to bring 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.” However, the dispute over hatcheries vs wild, self-sustaining fisheries has arguably never been more heated as it is today.

Some local TU Chapters throughout the country are independently taking that mission statement and acting on it. “What we’re seeing now, today, is that local chapters themselves are leading advocacy efforts to get the states themselves to stop stocking hatchery fish on top of wild and native populations of trout.” Chris also highlighted the work of the Native Fish Coalition and groups like Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition that are highlighting many of these regionally specific campaigns to prioritize wild fish over stocking programs.

Salter brook trout. Geof Klane photo

You see, he went on to add that TU was originally founded by anglers who took issue with hatchery fish and wanted to preserve wild fisheries. “So, in a way we’re returning to our roots,” Chris said. Or, to complete the metaphor, TU may be naturally returning to its spawning and rearing waters as the hatchery vs wild and native fish debates intensify.

In the PNW, where seasons are often closed to protect the few remaining wild fish, there is a loud subset of the larger angling community all but giving up on wild fisheries and increasing hatchery output. It’s both sad and unfortunate that these runs are so diminished, without a doubt, but to fully transition rivers to put and take systems would be a worse tragedy. Sure, many of these wild steelhead and salmon runs on the West coast are at single digit percentages of their historic abundance levels. But we know that these fish are resilient and when given the chance with good access to habitat, migration corridors, and some luck with Mother Nature they can recover.

The Elwha is the model when it comes to river restoration, NPS

The success story of the Elwha is the perfect example in support of prioritizing the recovery of wild runs before we actually lose them. In just six years since the dams on the Elwha River were removed, wild summer-run steelhead have returned–and without hatcheries. Last year, scientists conducting a snorkel survey counted more than 300 redds, according to Chris, who, nearly shouting at this point, exclaimed “they recovered their anadromy and ran back to the ocean. It’s amazing!”

Restoring the Snake River and saving these fish, which are capable of coming back, is now TU’s highest priority. And that’s part of what makes wild and native fish so special and sought after–they have evolved over thousands of years and many of them spend most of their lives thousands of miles away from where anglers encounter them. It’s a special connection to nature that has “ruined,” in the best meaning possible, so many anglers. Hatchery fish just don’t have that moxie or history. So, Chris ended our conversation by saying that, “we’ve successfully worked in the Olympic Peninsula to protect while fish by allowing some rivers to have hatchery fisheries and others to be exclusively wild fish. I think that [prioritizing wild runs] is the wave of the future and will become more of an issue for us, but it is going to be wildly controversial.”

Thanks to Chris and TU for sitting down with us to look back over an eventful year and for the work they hope to achieve in this next one.

Photos by Josh Duplechian of TU

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