Trout Unlimited’s identity crisis in the Pacific Northwest

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.

TroutUnlimited Focus Group

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.


This entry was posted in Oregon Conservation News. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Trout Unlimited’s identity crisis in the Pacific Northwest

  1. Paul Wagner says:

    Hey Matt,
    Thanks for the update on the meeting. I was planning on being there but had shoulder surgery on Monday and was not quite ready to head out into the world. . Thanks for all of your hard work.

  2. Rob says:

    Nice summary Matt. Really enjoyed the PDX meeting.

  3. Great post. Interesting to hear the differences between the two meetings.

    Not surprising, but encouraging that a group of people with a cause to rally ’round would feel more attached to the organization and each other.

    Love the quote about bringing young people up with conservation and stewardship in mind. Maybe a few hardliners would soften if they heard, “Hey Grampa, you can’t keep EVERY fish” a few times.

    Good to see you Tuesday. Let’s go fishing.

  4. Steelie Mike says:

    I got a message late in the day regarding the meeting and already had family obligations. It sounded like there was a great turnout from friends that attended the meeting. I am pretty curious about what went on and thankful for the report. Years ago I was a TU member but after leaving Oregon and coming up to Washington I was a little perturbed at what I saw TU advocate on one of my rivers. TU does great things and support any and all organizations that benefit native fish. My only reservation is some rivers like the Cowlitz are not salvageable.

  5. Rob R says:

    “Maybe it’s the name. I mean, “Trout….unlimited??” J. Hickman

    I almost blew beer out my nose on that one.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Why do you keep referring to the PDX this and PDX that, what does this have to do with the Airport? Why are you using the International Air Transport Association to refer to a city, when they only properly refer to an airport, navigation aid, weather station or train station? You can’t steelhead in any of these places, so referring to PDX steelheaders just makes you sound like a tard.

  7. Oregon Fly Fishing Blog says:

    For the record, I own a fly vest and an SUV.

  8. Rob R says:

    we’re all tards. pdx pdx pdx pdx.

  9. Rick Allen says:


  10. Anthony says:

    I’m curious to know who thought about putting TU stickers on their vehicles on the walk back to their car. Will a “larger collection of stickers in a given area promote interest about what TU is”?

    ps: thanks for the “outdated” hat! I love it!

  11. Chris Vogel says:

    Hats off to 678 for taking the bull by the horns, keeping it real. TU sticker/Subbie driven’, or not; 678 is getting things done! And TU National, thanks for sending those fine folks to the Vets last night; I hope it enlightens DC to the front lines – PNW is still in the thick of fighting for wild native fish. Tick.. tock..

  12. Stevie says:

    Guys like Matt and Karl are the heartbeat and the back-bone of our local chapter. Thanks for making TU relevant in the battle for native fish.

    Not ‘tardy but now Hardy, Stevie

    PS. PDX

  13. Oregon Fly Fishing Blog says:

    Rub it in. That was a great looking reel.

  14. Steve says:

    Matt, sugar goes a lot further than vinegar. I’m sorry that everybody doesn’t necessarily agree with everything you and Karl are dedicated to. It seems to me that you guys need to start finding some middle ground, mend some fences and try to develop some patience. I admire your conviction but change takes time. I think you guys are on the right track on your thinking, but you keep bringing your supporters closer, the fringe folks keep moving away and your non-supporters just keep getting more pissed. TU is a great organization, wild fish are fabulous and hatchery fish are for the frying pan only. Polarizing groups will never accomplish anything except an endless stalemate. You need all the supporters and resources you can acquire. Bad mouthing of the Portland TU group will go nowhere fast. Pissing off the McKenzie Guides Association was not a good call. The local TU chapter working with these two groups (and others) on some common ground and initiatives would be a good start in my humble opinion. Working with the business owners on the McKenzie River would also pay dividends. I really wanted to get involved with TU but until I can be convinced that there is some common ground that can be reached for the common good of all the parties (including the fish) I will continue to sit on the fringe….

    ps. As a side note….why would one of your TU members wear brass knuckles to a TU meeting?….lol

  15. Matt says:

    Steve, I couldn’t agree more with your comment in general, but have one clarification.

    We are NOT bad mouthing the Portland TU members. The guys in the Clackamas and Tualatin chapters have been doing amazing work since before I could spell T-U. I’m pointing out that the Portland fly fishing community outside of those chapters doesn’t see what’s going on. So they need to be more visible.

    Also, it’s pretty clear that me and Karl are good at pissing people off. I realize that I can barely talk about these issues without foaming at the mouth. I’m all for common ground and shared goals. But we need a good Fence-Mender in our chapter! Any interest in taking the job?

    RE: Brass Knuckles… the dictionary defines hyperbole as the use of exaggeration as a rhetorical device or figure of speech. “It may be used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression…” The point is that our guys and gals are ready to go to the mat, and we love them for it.

  16. Snoopy Rodder says:

    At this point I have to disagree with Steve, sugar hasn’t worked. After listening to lies told by the MRGA during public meetings such as the 40% return to anglers being just a suggestion, where it is truely enforceable by law; time to break out the brass knuckles!

    The recent failure of Lane County to consider stricter regulations protecting our drinking water and endangered species, or to even enforce existing regulation; well it is time to take Lane County and violating land owners to court. Time to sue!

    Just a snoopy rodder

  17. steve says:

    Matt, we should talk off line sometime maybe over a cup of coffee or a good ninkasi…..

  18. ecneubert says:

    Interested in volunteering, any info. would be appreciated, thanks. Been on the “fringe” too long.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *