Last month, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Trout Unlimited CEO and President Chris Wood to discuss TU’s highest priorities going into 2020. Over the course of our chat, Chris touched on conservation and membership goals and even highlighted a couple restoration projects. Like any other environmental or outdoor non-profit organization, TU must overcome a myriad of obstacles to achieve their goals. The constant need for financial resources and volunteer hours and short-sighted federal or state Government policies are the primary barriers to achieving these goals. Fortunately, TU is uniquely positioned to overcome these obstacles and facilitate lasting cold water conservation. TU, as Chris puts it, uses “the results and good will generated by the partnerships, relationships, and in many cases, friendships created through our restoration work, and use that to leverage positive policy outcomes.”

Chris Wood with a nice Bristol Bay steelhead

Conservation:

Going into 2020, TU remains focused on restoring and conserving our Nation’s cold-water fisheries. Specifically, Chris highlighted three primary conservation priorities: fighting the Clean Water Act rule changes, protecting Bristol Bay, and working towards removing the four lower Snake River Dams.

If you are familiar with the Clean Water Act, you know it is the strongest federal protection for our waterways. You probably are also somewhat familiar with the recent rule changes to the bedrock environmental law. The Trump administration significantly narrowed the scope of the law, barring thousands of miles of small, headwater streams and millions of acres of wetlands from federal protection. Chris likened these streams that will lose federal protections to, “the capillaries in our bodies. They carry all the nutrients and—if you’re not careful—pollutants downstream into the larger water bodies.” These rule changes threaten so much of what TU stands for and works to prevent.

The Potomac River headwaters project taking a look at the work that Trout Unlimited does across an entire watershed.

Ideally, TU can work to undo these attacks on the Clean Water Act in Congress by advocating for the explicit inclusion of small, intermittent, headwater streams in a Clean Water Act reauthorization bill. But, if that proves politically unfeasible, Chris described the possible legal remedy. “Actually, this is shocking: the Government actually said, ‘it is impossible for us to predict the effects of this change.’ This is basically the Government saying, ‘sue me.’” In the end, Chris was optimistic, because clean water carries with it amazingly broad and bipartisan public support. “99 percent of Americans will never see Bristol Bay, but everybody understands clean water.”

And while the vast majority of Americans will not be able to experience the raw beauty of Bristol Bay due to a multitude of factors, the possibility of that experience should not be destroyed by a foreign-owned mine. TU remains poised to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine. The mine would be located precisely in the headwaters of two Bristol Bay rivers—the Kvichak and Nushagak. The Kvichak river accounts for an astonishing amount of the entire world’s wild sockeye salmon—60 million fish in a brief two weeks long fishing season. The Nushagak is no different; each year, this river is one of the top three Chinook salmon rivers in the world. This region is too important for the native tribes of Alaska, commercial fishermen, a thriving recreational economy, and the world’s supply of nutrient rich wild salmon to be jeopardized by the scientifically-questioned Pebble Mine.

Bristol Bay sockeye salmon, courtesy of Fly Out Media

Last fall, TU joined a diverse coalition of stakeholders and organizations by suing the EPA over the proposed determination for Pebble Mine. Chris said TU, “is in a holding pattern right now.” The legal system is a slow institution, which in the case of Pebble Mine, is a good thing. Delaying the mine—at this time—is an effective tactic to protect Bristol Bay. Also, on top of these lawsuits, Pebble Mine still does not have all of the necessary water permits, and this permit process has since been delayed. TU is not a litigious organization, but sometimes serious measures are needed to protect what you love—this is that scenario.

Photo from Spokane Falls TU

TU’s third conservation priority is removing the four lower Snake River dams—Ice Harbor Dam, Lower Monumental Dam, Little Goose Dam, and Lower Granite Dam (order ascending upstream). The recovery of the West’s salmon and steelhead is a significant long-term priority for TU. The removal of these four dams, however, could happen sooner rather than later, and TU believes it would immediately provide habitat improvements for the struggling wild salmon and steelhead of the Columbia River Basin.

The frustrating part of all this work, however, is, “as a country, we have spent $17 billion trying to recover wild Snake River salmon and steelhead.” Yet, salmon and steelhead recovery efforts are showing little promise, despite the hefty price tag. Chris noted that, “these dams provide less than five percent of the region’s hydroelectricity,” and a nonpartisan research group found that removing these four dams, “would result in a two-to three-fold increase in salmon abundance in the Snake River Basin.” After years of dwindling salmon and steelhead stocks, countless man hours, and billions of dollars spent, removing these four outdated and inefficient dams appears to be the only logical option. These fish are the embodiment of healthy watersheds; when watersheds are clean, unobstructed, and flowing, these fish thrive, but without those prerequisites, they falter. In 2020, TU hopes to see continued progress on removing the four lower Snake River dams through both its grassroots and policy influencing reaches.

Noteworthy Projects for 2020:

Obviously, the three identified conservation priorities generally capture most of the national attention, but TU has hundreds of projects that improve local watersheds. For example, the recently unveiled Battenkill Home Rivers Initiative. This famous East Coast river system has suffered from habitat degradation caused by deforestation, nutrient pollution, channel modification, and sedimentation. The Battenkill Home Rivers initiative seeks to restore this historically productive fishery and improve its resiliency. For more information about the Battenkill HRI, including how to become involved as a volunteer, contact Jacob.Fetterman@tu.org or BattenkillHRI@tu.org.

Prior to launching the Battenkill Home Rivers Initiative, Trout Unlimited completed a watershed assessment, which identified many areas that could benefit from habitat enhancement.

Another project Chris highlighted was The Driftless Area Restoration Effort, which encompasses an area of 24,000 square-miles in the Upper Mississippi River Basin (Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa). The region’s 600-plus spring-fed creeks, which total nearly 6,000 stream miles, were severely harmed from early European settlement and continued agriculture practices. Erosion and sediment pollution were the primary factors TU sought to remediate. Since its inception in 2006, TU–with much help from partners–has secured hundreds of miles of public stream access, restored 12-18 miles of stream per year, and responsibly managed the millions of dollars of restoration funds. Thanks to this work and funding, streams and anglers alike are enjoying a “10-fold increase in fish production post restoration.” The successes in The Driftless Area proves that restoration efforts–which TU has become so known for–work and are essential for fly fishing and outdoor recreation as a whole.

TU’s restoration work is no small endeavor, but someone has to do the heavy lifting!

Membership Goals:

As a non-profit organization and like countless other conservation organizations, TU endures many roadblocks in the execution of its mission. Whether it be securing necessary funding levels and types of money or maintaining and expanding its membership and volunteer force, TU is not invincible. But that is not always a bad thing, for example it forces TU to remain nimble and adapt.

A public lands rally held at the Colorado state capitol building. (Joshua Duplechian/Trout Unlimited)

TU enjoys, arguably, one of the largest and most active membership bases at over 300,000 strong. However, TU is running into a demographic problem: its members’ average age has shifted from 58 years of age to 62 in the past five years and TU is not as diverse as the collective fly fishing sector. For example, the fly fishing sector is roughly 30 percent women and 20 percent people of color, whereas TU is about seven and two percent, respectively. In order for TU to maintain its influence and position in the conservation space, it must continue to grow and attract these underrepresented demographics. Sure, this would provide tangible benefits—i.e. more member contributions and volunteers—but more importantly, it builds on the inclusiveness of TU and the entire fly fishing community.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man or a person of color or whatever. If you walk into a place and you’re made to feel welcome immediately or if you’re a stranger and someone comes over and greets you and introduces you to a group of people, you’re going to feel welcome and want to come back.” That is Chris Wood’s goal for TU—to become much more welcoming and in turn develop a new stream of genuine and motivated members.

TU also plans to become younger and reinvigorate its membership through its “stream of engagement.” TU’s Headwaters Program is paramount to this. (LINK and Screenshot). Headwaters involves programs such as Trout in the Classroom and Adopt a Trout for younger students, youth camps and teen summits for older kids, and the Five Rivers Programs for college-aged kids. All of these programs seek to funnel the best and the brightest into TU—and specifically into leadership roles in local chapters.

In the end, TU is a national organization, but it is nothing without its members and volunteers committed to improving their local waters. Chris concluded our chat with, “if you’re not consciously mentoring and training the next generation of conservation stewards, you’re going to lose that generation,” because ultimately, “TU is an organization run by ordinary people who raise their hand, people who want to get outside, who want to get involved.”

As 2020 really starts to get into the swing of things, TU has, unsurprisingly, hit the ground running as it works toward its goals. We at Flylords look forward to continuing to work with TU and follow its achievements. In closing, I’ll leave you with this quote from Chris: “This is about conservation. If we don’t look more like America and if we aren’t more welcoming of America, we shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of these things we take for granted—like the Clean Water Act and the legacy of Americas’ public lands—are lost.”

Interested in becoming a TU member? Click this link!

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