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What Does River Conservation Really Mean?

The Week that Is: If you ask river protectors you're likely to get different answers. Is growing recreation pressure a problem?

"In the Stillness of Dawn," a painting by Brent Cotton. To learn more about this work or others by Cotton, go to
"In the Stillness of Dawn," a painting by Brent Cotton. To learn more about this work or others by Cotton, go to
Every week in “The Week That Is,” journalist and Mountain Journal founder Todd Wilkinson and MoJo’s national Washington DC correspondent Tom Sadler discuss topical events relating to the nation’s capital city and the public land West. This week the conversation turns to the battle over protecting the character of the Upper Madison River in Montana from overuse by anglers and how, more broadly, it raises questions about the real meaning of river conservation.

TODD WILKINSON:  I would like to start this week's conversation with a simple question: Are great trout rivers sacred—and, if yes, why?  

TOM SADLER: They are for me, and I’ll quote the noted Montana writer and fly-fisher Thomas McGuane:  “If the trout are lost, smash the state.” Here’s why they are sacred and worth defending. First, cold, clean water. Trout need it and if we want trout then we need cold, clean water. Straight line equation. And that clean water is an ecological blessing to humanity. Can’t live without it. 

Second, those trout streams mean anglers, which means economic activity. That activity provides a shit load of economic benefits, locally, regionally and nationally. And last, but probably most important, is they are an indicator for us a species of whether we are willing to not screw up everything we touch. McGuane’s quote encapsulates a core value for me. 

WILKINSON: Tom, the reason I ask is because the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Northern Rockies region have some of the best known trout waters in the world. Last summer brought a record level of inundation to many of them—not only by recreational fly-fishers and guides with clients, but stand-up paddle boarders, rafters and inner tubers. Please speak from your perch in the East on the mystique of the rivers out there.

SADLER: Well, along with the historical mystique they invoke, our rivers are popular recreational venues. By the way, our friend the late Jim Range was obsessed with the spring shad run on the Potomac. I didn’t hold it in the same regard, and likened it to fishing in a Walmart parking lot— more on that later.

The Shenandoah River near where I live is not only a legendary and popular smallmouth bass fishery it’s extremely popular river for float tubers, kayakers and canoers. Our mountain trout streams like Ramsay’s Draft, the Saint Mary’s and the Rapidan River not only attract fly fisherman, but hikers, photographers and folks looking for a pretty place to swim, flock to them as soon as the weather allows. The attraction or mystique is the bucolic nature of the setting, for the most part, and the chance to find solace and renewal in the outdoors especially these days.

WILKINSON: As you may have heard we in Montana are dealing with a very contentious debate over how to manage people on the Upper Madison River. It's not only fishing pressure that conservationists are concerned about but industrial-strength levels of commercial and recreational use that, for some,  has changed the ambiance of being on the river or wading it. Do you have any thoughts?  

SADLER: In quoting McGuane I have to acknowledge that the “state” includes the users. We need to recognize that rivers are as important as the fish. Folks say, “take care of the fish and the fishing will take care of itself.” That’s true but we need to step back and add emphasis to the foundational element—the river itself.
"Sundown's Embrace," a painting by Brent Cotton (
"Sundown's Embrace," a painting by Brent Cotton (
WILKINSON: We've had chats about this. You mean a river as a life force apart from how people exploit a river for personal benefit?

SADLER: Indeed, but one thing we're not very good at is talking about the spirit of a river and what gets lost when they are overrun or expected to do too much.

WILKINSON: Controversies over proposed hardrock mines in the watersheds of rivers have been in the news—be the Smith River in Montana or the Pebble Mine in Alaska. It’s easy, it seems, to wag our collective fingers at a Canadian mining company and telling them “wrong mine in the wrong place" in Alaska, but aren’t we facing a Pebble Mine level of impact collectively on our rivers with all the pressure we’re exerting upon them?

SADLER: Arguably more so. Pebble is still a threat that needs to be resolved but the fact is use itself is a threat to our rivers and the sooner we recognize we have an impact the sooner we can take steps to address it. Maybe river users aren’t extracting resources at the level of a Pebble or pollution reaching them but we have an impact on the critters, and just as importantly overcrowding is extracting the experience from other users on rivers like the Madison. Whether you are degrading the habitat or the experience you are also putting the economics at risk. If I were a business in a place like Ennis, that would scare the heck out of me, just like Pebble scares folks in Bristol Bay.

WILKINSON: What is your sense of the urgency required to talk about this and what are the priorities?

SADLER: I suspect if you talk to some folks along the Madison River, they will say we are long past the time to be addressing the issue. If I understand correctly, at least for the Madison there have been a number of efforts, including Citizen Advisory Committees, and petitions in play trying to address this for 10 years if not longer. I think the priorities are pretty clear. Address the issue or lose the goose that lays a golden egg.

Our public lands are looking down the barrel of a tragedy of the commons situation—call it overexploitation. Both the natural and economic ecosystems are fragile and at the tipping point. The pandemic has sent people to the outdoors in greater numbers highlighting the challenge. People and businesses need to take a long view, or we are dooming future generations to a world without the benefit of our natural resources like rivers. 

WILKINSON: So that readers here understand, how delicate are rivers and how vulnerable are they to abuse? Give us a perspective from what the view looks like from a trout, especially in the West when, as summers wear on, water levels drop, water temperatures warm up which is challenging to cold water species, and, in some ways, trout are as stressed in summer as elk are in winter.

SADLER:  We need to look at trout water—rivers—holistically. They are delicate ecosystems as I said before. Even with the hoot owl restrictions you have out there in summer during times of low and warm water, the pressure doesn’t go away; it just gets consolidated. That means more anglers pounding on fish in a compressed time window. So not only do the fish get hammered, but the fishing experience is also degraded. It was Yogi Berra who famously said, “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.” That is where this is headed. And to quote another great philosopher, Pogo, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
"We need to look at trout water—rivers—holistically. They are delicate ecosystems as I said before. Even with the hoot owl restrictions you have out there in summer during times of low and warm water, the pressure doesn’t go away; it just gets consolidated. That means more anglers pounding on fish in a compressed time window. So not only do the fish get hammered, but the fishing experience is also degraded." —Tom Sadler
WILKINSON: You're in the thick of the fly-fishing community and the internal discussions it has across the country. We've been talking recently about conversations that are occurring in the Shenandoah Valley and concern that some are only concerned about the way rivers can be monetized or caring only about hooking rates. f.

SADLER: That’s right. I’m proud of my affiliation with Mossy Creek Fly Fishing because of the type of business it is. The Trow brothers—owners—have made conservation a best practice. They invest in it, preach it and make it standard of behavior for the guides. All of us have a deep abiding love and respect for the rivers and streams here in the valley. I believe the success of the shop is attributable to that attitude of respect and appreciation for the river.

As guides we are teachers and not just about fishing. Sure, we all embrace the catch and release and “keep fish wet” ethos but it is way more than that. We all love to show our guests the wonders of the venues we get to work in and how we are working to keep them viable. Talk to any of the guides and they reflect that love. They understand that a river is more than fish and the trip is way more than hauling on fish. That conservation attitude is contagious and many times if infects our guests and the fishing public we encounter.

WILKINSON:  What kinds of conversations do we in the West need to be having?

SADLER: I’m a bit removed from the day-to-day challenges on the rivers in the West so take what I say with that grain of salt. The conversation that needs to take place is how do we not screw up our rivers and destroy the very thing we love? It’s an issue crying out for leadership and audacious action.

Everyone—businesses, customers and the public—has to be able to put their self-interest aside and decide it’s worth figuring out a sustainable, long-term future for our rivers. You would know better than I, is there space in the current political and cultural environment out there for that to take place?

WILKINSON: Not if the prevailing priority of everyone involved is sating their own rational self-interest  If everyone aspires to take a piece, there's not always a lot left for the nature of a place. I think we need to revisit what conservation really means. You and I had a deep friendship with the late conservationist Alex Diekmann of the Trust for Public Land, and he had tremendous respect for people like Craig Mathews and Jeff Laszlo. Craig operated a fly shop in West Yellowstone and Jeff has restored a large swath of O'Dell Creek, which is an important spawning and fish-rearing tributary to the Madison. What do those guys see about the fragility of trout streams that you think others ought to recognize?

SADLER: I’m fortunate to not only know both, I’ve fished with them on O’Dell creek. From talking to them and watching them I know they both think like a river like Leopold thought like a mountain. They can see the big picture. They understand how interconnected everything is and how little it takes to make an impact on the river for good or ill. And most importantly, they can see where it is headed and they have used their time on the planet to do something about it.

WILKINSON: Are we at the point where we need to have serious conversations about restrictions, quotas and allocations or what have you?

SADLER: I believe Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has gone down that road with their new management plan. And from what I understand, it is not meeting with universal approval. The simple fact is someone’s ox is going to get gored no matter what plan, system or regime you impose. It can’t be helped. The challenge will be in getting folks to recognize that their own short-term self-interest could result in their long-term ruin. That is always a tough sell.
"Drifting in Time," a painting by Brent Cotton. To see more of Cotton's work, go to
"Drifting in Time," a painting by Brent Cotton. To see more of Cotton's work, go to
WILKINSON: Do you think we are capable of getting to a place where we address these challenges with some level of civility?

SADLER: If you had asked this summer I would have said no, but today I’m a bit more optimistic. My experience has been that people of good conscience can get together and find ways to address challenges like these. Not saying it is easy or quick, but it is doable. I’ll use US Rep. Mike Simpson’s recent announcement about the Snake River dams as a current example. That is a very difficult nut to crack but Simpson, an Idaho Republican, has the guts and experience to tackle it. That gives me hope. It also may be a road map for dealing with the pressures on our rivers.

Theodore Roosevelt warned us in A Book Lover’s Holidays in the Open (1916) and we all would be wise to heed his warning:

“Defenders of the short-sighted men who in their greed and selfishness will, if permitted, rob our country of half its charm by their reckless extermination of all useful and beautiful wild things sometimes seek to champion them by saying that 'the game {wildlife] belongs to the people. So it does; and not merely to the people now alive, but to the unborn people. The 'greatest good for the greatest number' applies to the number within the womb of time, compared to which those now alive form but an insignificant fraction. Our duty to the whole, including the unborn generations, bids us to restrain an unprincipled present-day minority from wasting the heritage of these unborn generations. The movement for the conservation of wild life and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”

WILKINSON: Sounds like a fine aspiration but in terms of it resulting in workable solutions that are truly forward thinking, probably a tough sell.  This is fundamentally a challenge involving people wanting more access to wild places and creatures inhabiting them that have a finite carrying capacity.

SADLER: Yes, and the entrenched tribal politics aren’t helping. This subject has really got me thinking. I’m going to reach out to some folks and see what they think. It should make an interesting article. Stay tuned.

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