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A Sportsman's Moment of Truth: The Head of Trout Unlimited Weighs In

TU's President And CEO Chris Wood Talks Zinke, Pruitt, Climate Change, Pebble Mine and Lake Trout In Yellowstone

When Trout Unlimited president and CEO Chris Wood isn't meeting with the faithful scattered across the country, he's usually attending his kids' sporting events. And when he's not doing that, he steals away time on rivers wherever he finds them, like this day of chasing brook trout.  People who love the outdoors need to weigh in  on conservation issues or they risk losing the things they love, he says.
When Trout Unlimited president and CEO Chris Wood isn't meeting with the faithful scattered across the country, he's usually attending his kids' sporting events. And when he's not doing that, he steals away time on rivers wherever he finds them, like this day of chasing brook trout. People who love the outdoors need to weigh in on conservation issues or they risk losing the things they love, he says.
At more than 300,000 members strong, Trout Unlimited has a titanic presence within the American sporting community. As the nation’s leading conservation voice in cold-water fisheries protection, it boasts an influential demographic of anglers whose main way of interacting with the natural world is with a flyrod in hand.


On Capitol Hill, politicians who like to call themselves conservationists cut from the cloth of Republican President Theodore Roosevelt listen to what TU has to say.  Indeed, one of the organization's most ardent supporters has been New York financier Ted Roosevelt IV, great grandson of TR and a man who loves spending time in our corner of the West—yes casting for trout.

Streams in the northern Rockies are a mecca for anglers from around the world, drawn to our waters for their healthy populations of wild and pure native species.  The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem reins with distinction as one of the places where catch-and-release was pioneered as an ethic. In towns large and small, wherever there is an ardent tribe of anglers, there is often a local Trout Unlimited chapter.

Holding down the national helm of TU is president and CEO Chris Wood. For purposes of disclosure, Wood has come to be a longtime friend, a thinker with whom I’ve had many conversations over the years. I first began interviewing him back in the 1990s, during the era when he worked first as a natural resource specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, then as a senior policy aide to U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck (during the Clinton years) and more recently as TU’s top executive.

The U.S. hunting and angling community finds itself in a moment of intense soul-searching, with the Trump Administration undertaking aggressive maneuvers to undermine longstanding environmental protection laws, forge alliances with lawmakers who are interested in selling off or divesting federal public lands, and brazenly waging attacks on agency research and science programs.

Last summer, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership which is often an ally of TU on many issues, conducted a poll of 1,000 voters from across the country who identify as hunters and anglers.  Here is what TRCP discovered:
  • 97 percent agree that protecting and conserving public lands for future generations is important;
  • 95 percent agree it is important to maintain public lands infrastructure, like roads, trails, campgrounds, and historic sites;
  • 87 percent want no cuts to conservation in the federal budget;
  • 82 percent support the Bureau of Land Management's plans to conserve the greater sage grouse;
  • 4 in 5 support Clean Water Act protections for headwater streams and wetlands;
  • 77 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats support keeping the number and size of existing national monuments that offer hunting and fishing;
  • 92 percent believe public lands are positive economic drivers.

“In today’s polarized political climate, conservation has become a partisan issue with decision makers, but hunters and anglers strongly support conservation policies across the board, whether they’re Republican, Democrat, or Independent,” Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of TRCP, said upon the poll's release.

So why does this message not seem to be getting through to lawmakers in the rural West?

When it was announced that President Trump selected former Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to serve as the current Interior Secretary, TU, TRCP and other groups gave Zinke the benefit of the doubt when he claimed he planned to walk in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt. Today, many sporting organizations have reconsidered the free pass they gave to Zinke and are alarmed by the positions he and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have staked out.
"Our public lands are what remain of the great American migration. They are the anvil upon which the character of the nation was hammered out." —Chris Wood, national president and CEO of Trout Unlimited
One of the most controversial, where anglers are gravely concerned, is Pruitt’s recent decision to allow a Canadian-based hardrock mining juggernaut to continue to seek approval for a controversial copper and gold mega-mine in the upper reaches of the Alaska Peninsula. The so-called Pebble Mine project, which would involve an epic amount of earthmoving, tailings processing, and water storage, is proposed to happen in the heart of the last best wild salmon spawning areas in the world and with potential threats, should disaster strike, to Bristol Bay—a hub for commercial fishermen.

The question of whether creating short term mining jobs is worth the risk potentially causing long-term damage to a priceless natural wonder isn't only playing out in Alaska.

In Montana, TU's state chapter has come out in opposition to a proposed hardrock mine that would be situated inside the Smith River drainage

Where possible, Trout Unlimited has worked with mining companies to retire old claims. Earlier this summer, TU and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation brokered a deal with a Canadian mining company to mothball mining claims just outside the border of Yellowstone National Park near Jardine. The agreement secured water rights and elk habitat situated in the middle of a wildlife migration corridor.

Wood has said there are some areas so rare, so uncommon and so ecologically valuable that they should never be menaced by the possibility that disaster could occur.  And, given the plight of ocean fisheries, warming ocean temperatures, and rising levels of acidity, the idea of opening up the Pebble Mine would have been, in Roosevelt’s time, unthinkable, he says. Notably, Ted Roosevelt IV agrees with his assessment.

Closer to Greater Yellowstone, Trout Unlimited has also been worried about the future of cold-water fisheries which are likely to suffer mightily as the impacts of climate change deepen and battles over freshwater turn ever more fierce. Wood notes that flyfishing, as a driver for the economy and an important ingredient in quality of life, depends on protecting public lands that serve as a source for clean and cold water.

In the wide-ranging interview that follows, Wood and I talked about lots of different topics.

The interior of the Alaska Peninsula, not far from where the Pebble Mine is proposed, provides essential habitat for some of the last great wild salmon populations on earth.  Photo by Jim Klug / Bozeman.  Courtesy Trout Unlimited
The interior of the Alaska Peninsula, not far from where the Pebble Mine is proposed, provides essential habitat for some of the last great wild salmon populations on earth. Photo by Jim Klug / Bozeman. Courtesy Trout Unlimited
TODD WILKINSON: Where does Trout Unlimited stand on the need to restore/rewild cold-water trout fisheries in the West, around the Greater Yellowstone and what, in particular,  is TU’s position on attempted control of lake trout in in Yellowstone Lake?

CHRIS WOOD: We have been heavily involved in the lake trout suppression effort from the very beginning. Yellowstone Lake has been the most important natural wild reservoir for pure-strain Yellowstone cutthroat trout. And, around the world Yellowstone cutthroat trout are famous. Yellowstone cutthroat in the lake declined by about 90 to 95 percent in twenty years. Forget about who put them there, biologists believe that introduced lake trout were a primary reason for the decline.

WILKINSON: And what does TU think about enlisting professional gill netters from Wisconsin who have worked in Lake Michigan?

WOOD: If there is one thing we humans know how to do well it is how to overfish a species or population of fish. So that is exactly what we and our friends and partners, such as Yellowstone Forever did at Yellowstone Natonal Park. We applied commercial fishing techniques to lakers. This year they caught about 330,000 lake trout. By comparison in 2012, they caught over 1 million. The result is that we are seeing strong returns of spawning fish on places such as Thorofare Creek—areas that were bereft of spawners just a few years ago. We will never eradicate the lakers, but just like with other native trout, if we give the Yellowstone cutthroat trout half a chance, they will come back.     

WILKINSON: Two decades ago when you were working as a senior advisor to Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, you elevated the profile of roadless lands, highlighting the multiple benefits they deliver to society, namely in being natural water supplies that benefit tens of millions of people and, of course, wild systems.  Recently, a lawsuit was dismissed which challenged to undo 14 million acres of roadless protection in Alaska. An entire generation has passed since you worked for the Forest Service.  What is important for citizens to remember about the value of roadless?

WOOD: When we got the roadless rule through I had a (relatively) full head of brown hair! It was an amazing accomplishment by dozens of Forest Service employees who worked their tails off. Federal employees get a bad name, but the so called Roadless Team was comprised of an extraordinary group of big-picture thinkers, from scientists and policy experts to citizens and sportsmen’s groups. They secured the protection of 58.5 million acres of land in 18 months. Contrast that with the fact that the agency can take many years to finish a simple forest plan amendment.

Chief Mike Dombeck and the Forest Service people that worked on, and supported, the roadless rule demonstrated that ‘conservation leadership’ isn’t a saying printed on a coffee mug. It is a way of thinking and a way of life. The roadless rule protected two percent of the American land-base, and that is super cool. What is even more meaningful is that it helped break the agency from a several decade transition from timber production and road construction and realize that the values of the national forests that most Americans care about are clean water, wildness, naturalness, and open space.

And, when Wood isn't slinging a fly, he takes to the forest on deer and bird hunts.  Photo courtesy Chris Wood
And, when Wood isn't slinging a fly, he takes to the forest on deer and bird hunts. Photo courtesy Chris Wood
WILKINSON
: A lot of time has passed since you, Dombeck and colleagues were there.  How did the change in thinking take hold?

WOOD:  This change in the agency’s thinking is evident in the recently completed Tongass National Forest plan in Alaska. The Tongass, at 17 million acres, is the largest national forest in our national forest system. It phases out old growth logging, and protects the 77 most important watersheds on the forest from development. Those watersheds are the reason that 40 percent of the salmon from the West Coast come from the Tongass. It is a natural wild fish factory that delivers year after year as long as humans don’t mess it up. Yet, we have to remain vigilant. For example, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski and others are working to legislate changes that could threaten the roadless rule and the Tongass Forest Plan.

WILKINSON:  We’ve had many chats about resource issues over the years. When I was writing my book Science Under Siege about whistleblowers you invoked the quote from Max Planck. “A scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”  Expand on that.

WOOD: Old habits die hard, and we need to continually remind elected and appointed leaders that public lands aren’t warehouses of commodities waiting to be brought to market.  The Tongass, roadless areas—all of our public lands are what remain of the great American migration. They are the anvil upon which the character of the nation was hammered out. The roadless rule makes it possible that my children may see, and walk, and test themselves in them, just as our forebears did. 

WILKINSON: You worked in civil service for both the Forest Service and BLM.  Now we are seeing the EPA opening the door for the Pebble Mine to possibly be permitted in Alaska.  What are your thoughts about Scott Pruitt's tenure as EPA director, why should Americans be concerned, and what's at stake with the Pebble Mine? Both Pruitt and Zinke have drawn heat for evading meeting requests with conservationists.  Pruitt, in fact, has made himself available to mining executives.

WOOD: I met with Administrator Pruitt about Bristol Bay early into his tenure. In fact, Trout Unlimited is one of the few conservation organizations to have met with him. He seems like a decent man. And he is dead wrong on  Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble Mine.

His view is that the decision on Pebble is best left to the process. Why is it that some of our elected and appointed leaders always decry "the process" unless it fits their needs? President Roosevelt didn’t wait for the process to protect the Grand Canyon National Monument which later became a national park and is one of the wonders of the world. He did it himself. Gifford Pinchot didn’t allow the process to keep him from recommending the designation of 13 million acres of national forests hours before a law took away the executive branch’s authority to do so. Rachel Carson didn’t wait for the process to expose the danger of pesticides. Today, we have too many people worried about the trappings of their office, and not enough who eat, sleep, and breathe conservation leadership.

WILKINSON: For those who have never heard of it, how do you explain to people why Bristol Bay matters and is worthy of their attention? 

WOOD: Bristol Bay is the most important salmon fishery in the world and it jeopardizes the health of public lands we all own. One of the rivers that would be affected by the Pebble Mine supplies half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. You heard that right. One river; half of the world’s sockeye salmon—this summer 60 million fish were caught. Administrator Pruitt told me he had fished in Bristol Bay before. Let’s hope that personal experience and the weight of his responsibility as a leader help change his course. If not, we, and many others from Alaska, will be there to deter him.

WILKINSON: Initially, TU was among several hunting and fishing groups that said they were willing to give Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a chance to prove up on his self-espoused conservation convictions.  What is TU's assessment of Zinke today?

WOOD: I have tried several times to meet with Secretary Zinke, but to date have been unsuccessful. My sense is that his agenda is a bit adrift. His Monument review was directed from above, as I would bet was the sage grouse review. He should pick one or two serious conservation priorities—such as we did for roadless protection—and focus on them. Otherwise, he will be unable to separate the wheat from the chaff and continue to be distracted by demands from the White House or whatever else is coming over the transom that week.
"I think things are beginning to change. You can see it on the margins. For example, when radical ideas such as the boneheaded debate over transferring public lands from public ownership get exposed to public scrutiny, they wither on the vine." —Chris Wood
WILKINSON: Let's talk climate change. Reaching back again to your tenure in government, you and I had conversations about climate change in the 1990s and you noted then how the Forest Service research labs were picking up indications of climate change—data points that have only deepened.  What is your concern about the future of cold-water trout species that are at the center of TU's conservation mission?

WOOD: You cannot fish for trout and salmon and not be alarmed about climate change. Climate change poses an existential threat to society and to coldwater fisheries. That said, this is not a “sky is falling!” issue. Yet. We can take discrete steps to protect the highest quality habitats and work to reconnect them to lower elevation rivers and streams, and then work to restore valley bottoms. By doing so, we accomplish three things. First, we help to protect communities of people from the floods, fires, and drought associated with climate change. Second, these actions help to recover the natural resiliency of our lands and waters, and buy us time to address the root causes of climate change. Third, they make fishing better.

WILKINSON: I'm not asking this as a question to push you into a political box, but Trout Unlimited has derived a lot of support from "the radical middle" of America, with members who relate to the notion of conservatism as an extension of conservation values.  Arguably, your members are comprised of a lot of people who would otherwise identify as fiscally-conservative moderate Republicans. You travel the country talking with TU members.  What's on their minds? What are their concerns?

WOOD: Many TU members are weary of the politicization of conservation. We struggle to pass non-controversial laws to clean up abandoned mines or promote renewable energy on public lands; much less advance wilderness bills. 

WILKINSON: You are a friend of Ted Roosevelt.

WOOD: Teddy Roosevelt IV was one of the early pioneers who saw that TU had the potential to marry the on-the-ground presence of 400 chapters and 300,000 members and supporters along with a professional staff of lawyers, biologists, scientists and organizers into a force for conservation. He helped to build the modern TU. Just as his great grandfather was literally a voice in the wilderness on the value of public lands, from his perch on Wall Street, Ted has become a voice of reason on the need for action on climate change.

WILKINSON: There are many bills now in Congress that would dramatically alter the management and ownership of public lands, the relationship that Americans have to them, and the laws protecting them. A big criticism aimed by conservation groups and hunters and anglers is that they've been asleep and assume that things will always be the same.  Is that a fair assessment?

WOOD: I think things are beginning to change. You can see it on the margins. For example, when radical ideas such as the boneheaded debate over transferring public lands from public ownership get exposed to public scrutiny, they wither on the vine. 

Similarly, if enough sportsmen and women and other conservationists make their voices heard on other radical ideas such as building a massive mine in Bristol Bay or removing the protections of the Clean Water Act for 60 percent of the nation’s stream miles—and one-third of the nation’s drinking water supply—we can return conservation as a defining American value. 

WILKINSON: What have you learned since you took the helm of TU?

WOOD:

ONE: There are a lot of better fly-fishermen than I—but none more earnest.

TWO: Conservation is a game of singles. You just need to put runners on base and be in a position to score when someone makes a timely hit. That said,

THREE:  Don’t whiff on opportunities to swing for the fences every so often. The roadless rule was a swing for the fence; and the ball went over the wall.

FOUR: Conservation is not about protecting landscapes, or rivers, and critters. It is about people; specifically connecting people to places they live and love;

FIVE: That conservation that is most local is most durable. 
A Trout Unlimited map showing historic and current range of native trout in the Northern Rockies and beyond.
A Trout Unlimited map showing historic and current range of native trout in the Northern Rockies and beyond.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition of asking hard questions and pressing for honest answers. For more on his career, click below.
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