One year ago, almost to the day, I walked into Trout Unlimited’s national office to sit down with the organization’s President and CEO, Chris Wood. Overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, DC, we discussed Pebble Mine, environmental regulatory rollbacks, TU’s membership, and some exciting upcoming projects. Since that January afternoon, daily life and the conservation advocacy landscape has fundamentally changed. A global pandemic continues to impact all aspects of society, and the political dynamic of Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House caught everyone off guard. Follow along to learn more about what TU accomplished in the last year and what’s in store for this year, with added insights from Chris.

A Look Back Over 2020

Last year, Chris highlighted three specific conservation priorities the organization would focus on for 2020: Restoring the Clean Water Act’s protections for headwater streams and wetlands, protecting Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine, and removing the four lower Snake River dams. Each priority unique in scope and scale but equally important for the long-term conservation of cold-water fisheries and habitats, TU began the year with its sights set.

“Everything that we do is in partnership with other entities, groups, communities and engaged individuals. Conservation is always a collaborative effort”

The big victory for the fly fishing community was without a doubt the Army Corps rejecting Pebble Mine’s permit application in November.  TU had a large stake in that victory. Its offshoots, TU Alaska and Save Bristol Bay, in coordination with many, many other individuals and groups organized a powerful coalition that played a crucial role in standing strong in support of Bristol Bay. But the work is not done yet. The company behind Pebble Mine and Alaskan Governor Dunleavy initiated the appeal process, protesting the Army Corps’ record of decision. Moving forward, there are opportunities to strengthen protections for Bristol Bay. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency can use its authorities to further protect Bristol Bay. “The longer-term challenge is to work with the Alaskan delegation to come up with a plan to permanently protect the Bristol Bay region. We must protect the underlying real estate,” Chris concluded.

iliamna river rainbow trout
A chunky rainbow trout caught on the Iliamna River

Politics impeded progress on reconnecting the Snake River and restoring the full protections of the Clean Water Act. The Snake River dams are preventing imperiled salmonids from reaching hundreds of miles of high quality habitat. Yet, there are legitimate interests and stakeholders that depend on these same dams. Last summer, the government finalized an Environmental Impact Statement on the dams in question and others in the Columbia River system. The government more or less opted to maintain the status quo. This came as no surprise to Chris, who said: “The bureaucracy is not going to remove the dams…The only way it will happen is if we bring the people of the Northwest together.”

TU depends on the responsible and logical interpretation of the Clean Water Act to accomplish much of its cold-water work. The previous administration took quick aim at the Clean Water Act and initiated a rule change that significantly narrowed the law’s scope. With limited avenues to fight back against the Clean Water Act rollbacks, TU is an amici to an ongoing lawsuit to overturn the rule change. However, legal processes take time, and dam removal projects take even longer. Accomplishing one out of its three priorities (Pebble Mine) might appear as missing the target, but TU made undeniable progress on recovering Snake River salmon and restoring Clean Water Act protections. The organization enters 2021 with renewed hope and focus on pushing these remaining priorities and more across this finish line.

The COVID Effect

For the last nine months now, COVID has caused unimaginable devastation across the globe. TU experienced an immediate halt in all activities and financial strains, as the pandemic spread throughout the country. Put simply, Chris said, “COVID rocked us.” But in the optimistic manner he is known for, Chris emphasized the good. For example, TU quickly adapted to the new realities of living in a pandemic and devised plans to safely resume its conservation projects. Additionally, TU launched the Responsible Recreation campaign to help people safely enjoy the outdoors.

COVID had countless negative effects on the fly fishing community: guides and outfitters took a massive hit, travel and tourism became nearly nonexistent, and the trade shows and film festivals were indefinitely put on pause. From a glass half full perspective, however, COVID had several unexpected benefits. For one, fly fishing gained an estimated one million new anglers. “So many people used COVID to rediscover the outdoors this last year. Our job is to activate them as conservation advocates.” TU experienced an almost 10% growth in members this past year. Much of that increase can be attributed to one of TU’s best programs from last year: complimentary memberships for all essential workers. Within a week of opening the program, Chris received over a thousand applications in his email inbox, and he “replied to every freakin one!”

This program, which was heavily promoted on social media, had an interesting effect. TU welcomed thousands of new members because of the program. Also, on average these new members were 22 years younger than the average TU member and more likely to be women and people of color.

The TU Costa 5 Rivers Outreach Program is a great way for young anglers to learn more about conservation

The essential worker membership program has since expired. TU’s Service Partnership, which provides free memberships to members of the medical, fire service, law enforcement, and military communities, remains operational and is planning retreats for service members later this year.

What’s On Tap This Year

Much has changed over the last year, but removing the four lower Snake River dams and restoring the Clean Water Act’s protections remain atop TU’s agenda. The vastly different political landscape of 2021 upends what was previously thought of as a long shot and gives promise to what can be accomplished. TU’s three primary priorities this year are: rolling back the rollbacks; removing the four lower Snake River dams through a collaborative agreement; and, advancing common sense climate measures that protect people, communities, and natural resources.

“The values that drive our non-partisan conservation efforts here at TU are the same values that can repair our increasingly nasty political divisions.”

Opposing Pebble Mine displayed the power of the collective fly fishing community. But more importantly, it showed that seemingly impossible objectives can be accomplished when opposing factions coalesce and work together. TU has a remarkable opportunity to help the country unite and heal through conservation, a consistent area of bipartisanship. And to that, Chris said: “There is nothing that resonates more to anglers than something that involves their local waters.” Pivoting membership strategies to emphasize local opportunities and conservation initiatives is one way TU can help the country heal and, at the same time, improve watersheds.

A Clean Water Rule rally in downtown Denver, CO.

Collaboratively Restoring Snake River Salmon

The four Lower Snake River dams are causing the extinction of salmon and steelhead. A collection of renowned salmon scientists agree: “It is our collective opinion, based on overwhelming scientific evidence, that restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River is essential to recovering wild Pacific salmon and steelhead in the basin.” The only hope to recover these fish is by removing these dams, which will only happen by bringing all the Snake River basin stakeholders to the table. “We can figure out how to move the irrigation infrastructure or transport grain,” Chris noted. “We can tap into so much creativity and ingenuity to address all the issues behind removing the dams. The one thing we cannot fix is the fact that salmon need a migration corridor.” Removing these dams is a necessary step towards the long term recovery of these fish, and Chris remains optimistic on making tangible progress towards that this year.

Rolling Back The Rollbacks

The Trump administration’s deregulatory agenda was no secret. The effects of which are negatively impacting fish and wildlife all over the country. A huge priority for TU, therefore, is to roll back the rollbacks. Building on last year’s efforts, restoring the Clean Water Act’s protections remains a high priority. On the matter, Chris pleaded, “It doesn’t have to be this contentious. We all just want to bring the Act back to how it was applied for its first 30 years.” The prior interpretation of the law, where small seasonal streams were protected, was an essential component to TU’s cold-water conservation work.

A key motivation behind conservation is passing along clean rivers and abundant fish to future generations

In addition to the Clean Water Act, TU hopes the Biden administration will restore the Roadless Rule protections in the Tongass National Forest. The Tongass is North America’s largest intact temperate rainforest and a wild salmon powerhouse that significantly contributes to southeast Alaska’s economy. Without the Roadless Rule protections, large tracts of temperate rainforest are open to road development and logging operations. This has a direct impact on some of the world’s most productive salmon habitats and an indirect impact on climate change through the loss of carbon sequestering trees. The environmental and outdoor recreation communities are now lobbying the new Biden Administration to restore these protections through the regulatory process.

Advancing Commonsense Climate Measures

Climate change is among the greatest threats to our fisheries–let alone the planet. Oftentimes, the scale and magnitude of climate change can discourage action. There are, however, all sorts of opportunities to protect people from the effects climate change and improve fish habitat. Again, because of a different political landscape, more progress on conservation and climate action is possible. Today, one of the most realistic ways for TU to convert good ideas into laws is through a looming–and massive–infrastructure package. Some ideas that Chris highlighted and is very optimistic about include:

  • Empowering the Federal Emergency Management Agency to improve watershed resilience BEFORE major weather events, to protect people and communities while maintaining quality fish habitats.
  • Creating incentives for organizations to clean up abandoned mines
  • Passing the Public Lands Renewable Energy Act, which would create a revenue stream for fish and wildlife habitat restoration and climate work.

“This is going to be a really big legislative vehicle, and we are going to have a great chance to move a bunch of these longstanding TU priorities very quickly,” Chris commented. According to The Hill, “Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed enthusiasm for a potential infrastructure package under the Biden administration.” So, keep an eye out for an infrastructure package–it could improve miles of fish habitat and strengthen your community’s climate change resiliency.

“As conservationists, we have been trained to say ‘no’ to projects. Being trained to become problem solvers is a different animal, but that is the future of conservation.”

Local Projects To Keep An Eye On

Last year, much of the prime restoration season was lost due to COVID’s initial lockdowns, but TU pushed forward on many community-driven projects. One project that Chris highlighted last year was the Battenkill Home Rivers Initiative, an “ecosystem-based approach to prioritize reconnection, restoration and protection throughout the watershed.” In coordination with state and local partners, TU accomplished a lot in the Battenkill’s watershed, including replacing harmful culverts, stabilizing stream banks, planting trees, and reintroducing meanders into streams. “We analyzed historic aerial photos to discover where the historic meanders were. Then we literally went in with backhoes and reconstructed how these streams originally flowed,” Chris said. The Battenkill work will continue progressing this year, but Chris is also looking forward to some other new projects for 2021.

  • Gallatin River: “In 2021, TU is teaming up with Simms Fishing Products to launch a Gallatin River Home Rivers Initiative in southwest Montana. Simms has committed $240,000 over the next three years to support the effort, and TU plans to hire a Gallatin River project manager early in 2021 to lead it. Our goal is to improve trout populations and fishing opportunity on the Gallatin by protecting instream flows and resilient water supplies, restoring and reconnecting critical fish habitat, and engaging local communities in citizen science and angler stewardship programs.”
  • Bald Mountains Project Area: “TU developed a new project area in Tennessee, where we will reconnect native Southern Appalachian brook trout habitat on two tributaries to the French Broad River by replacing culverts blocking aquatic organism passage with fully passable structures, and inform future decisions in the watershed by crowd-sourcing data collecting throughout the project area using TU’s Community Science Program and the Southeast Aquatic Resource Partnership’s Stream Barrier Assessment Protocol. Through these efforts, connectivity will be restored to 3.5 miles of native brook trout habitat and 28.5 miles of small stream network, allowing genetically distinct, endemic populations of brook trout better access to headwater sections that provide breeding habitat and thermal refuge, and a watershed-scale decision framework will be created that allows partners to implement future restoration to maximize native fish recovery.”
  • Brook Trout Portfolio Mapping in the Great Lakes: “TU launched a project to map all brook trout habitat in the Great Lakes basin in a manner similar to the mapping completed for brook trout in their eastern range, which uses broad-scale GIS information to characterize the general habitat condition and vulnerability of brook trout patches.”
Bear Creek Greenback Cutthroat Trout on Bear Creek outside of Colorado Springs, CO. Greenbacks tagged and released at Zimmerman Lake north of Fort Collins, CO in Poudre Canyon.

TU and its partners stood strong in the difficult year that was 2020 and accomplished a lot for our cold-water fisheries. As you can tell, 2021 will be another busy year for the organization. And through one month of the new year, TU and its staff are brimming with optimism as to what they can accomplish this year. However, much of this work cannot be done by just TU’s staff alone. Volunteers and local chapters remain the lifeblood to TU. If you are not already, become a TU member and get involved with your local chapter today!

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