What is Trout Unlimited? I can give a pretty straightforward answer: A national conservation organization advocating for conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds. The org is 140,000 members strong and has been around for over fifty years. I actually signed up for TU in elementary school because I liked the copy of Trout Magazine I found in the library.
But somehow in the Pacific Northwest, TU’s identity isn’t quite as clear.
I know TU is behind some of the most significant environmental lawsuits and protections for salmon in my area. TU is a primary litigant in the case that got Oregon Coastal Coho listed as an endangered species. TU put a lawyer on EWEB during the Carmen-Smith Dam FERC relicensing project to put pressure our public utility do the right thing for McKenzie Spring Chinook salmon. I know that when I send TU $35, it has a huge and tangible benefit to my local fishery issues.
I also know that at the volunteer level, almost nobody has done more in this state for wild fish than TU Oregon State Council Chair Tom Wolf. If there is a fisheries issue that winds up in front of our state legislators, you can bet Tom is there, advocating for our interests.
At a state chapter meeting in Bend two years ago, when Karl and I stood around talking about all the cool stuff our chapter was doing, it was Tom Wolf who said “That all sounds nice boys, now why don’t you grow a pair and take on the McKenzie Hatchery Trout issue?”
I also know that when it comes to politics of hatchery versus native salmonids in the NW, TU stands firm. They literally shut down the Washington State Council of TU a few years back for being a bunch of pro-hatchery goons. Do you know what kind of guts that takes? Just ask the FFF…
But a lot of people don’t know what TU is doing, or don’t relate to its stodgy East-Coast image. So TU held a couple focus groups in Portland and Eugene, this week to find out what people think about the organization and how it could become more relevant and effective to anglers in the Northwest.
Up in Portland, Drake magazine editor Tom Bie put pressure on the group of local stud guides, anglers and creative types to come out and give the outsider’s perspective on the org. And they managed to put a serious dent in TU’s bar tab.
The perception around the room was that inside PDX’s steelheader culture, TU is invisible. For one, the name has the word “Trout” in it, and nobody in Portland fishes for trout anymore, apparently.
Also, TU is known for its focus on-the-ground habitat restoration, and the glacial pace and incremental benefits of planting streamside trees doesn’t fit into the frenetic 30-something urban angler’s lifestyle.
Anglers my age want to see dams torn down, and pro-hatchery state employees run out of town with torches and pitchforks. And some local organizations match up much more closely with those priorities, like Water Watch of Oregon and The Native Fish Society. And if people are going to get involved on a volunteer level, they’re going to focus their energy with the organization that best matches up to their priorities and self-image.
What does TU represent to the PDX steelheader culture? A fly vest wearing, SUV driving, yuppie club that doesn’t want to touch the political hot button issues, spending conservation dollars to fly a Miami-based marketing firm around the country to find out why it isn’t cooler.
Whether or not that’s accurate isn’t relevant. Perception is reality, right?
But when you got down to Eugene, things looked a lot different. The twenty five people in the room were dedicated TU members, locked in a fierce political battle over hatchery and native fish interactions. One of our members wears 4X T-shirts, carries brass knuckles and scares the members of other fishing organizations for fun.
We’ve got smart people down here, looking at habitat conservation and restoration from a much longer viewpoint, planting trees that will have an effect on salmonid habitat three generations from today. We want to see everything happen in our lifetime, but nature doesn’t work like that.
One of the best quotes from the night:
“If we spend our energy trying to change people’s minds, it’s never going to happen. We need to stop thinking a 60 year-old guide on the McKenzie is our enemy, and instead turn to the schools in our area suffering in the science curriculum. We need an outreach program to take kids to a stream and start to send our message to these high schoolers and Jr. High kids, to talk about invasive species and hatchery fish.”
Also, TU is great for a community hub for new people to an area, bringing new people into the conservation fold. Just that night, we had four people in the crowd, relatively new in town that had never been to a TU meeting before. And if that’s not a testament to the things TU is doing right, I don’t know what is.
In Eugene, people saw what was happening at the grass roots level as vitally important and the TU name recognition as valuable. But the agenda and national organization is still largely invisible. That lacking may fall on me and Karl, as chapter officers. But as volunteers keeping a chapter afloat, funded and busy is enough work. I don’t think we have time to cheer-lead for the National organization as well. So it’s definitely an area that needs improvement.
At least in the Northwest, TU has it’s work cut out for it: publicizing its wins, supporting its loosely organized local chapters, and making sure its priorities match up with what local conservation-anglers feel is important. But I’d say it’s doing a lot more right than wrong.