Chris Wood is the President and CEO of Trout Unlimited (TU), a position that almost seems tailor-made for him.
Wood is a former senior policy and communications advisor to the Chief of the US Forest Service, where he worked on unique land protection projects connected to hunting and fishing areas. The story of his path to TU is a memorable one.
Trout UnlimitedTrout Unlimited is devoted to keeping our country's cold water fisheries and their watersheds safe from environmental threats for this and future generations of anglers to enjoy. For more information, and to join the organization, visit TU.org.
In the photo above, Wood talks to volunteers at Trout Unlimited’s Western Regional Meeting in Reno last week, just one small part of his huge responsibility as leader and motivator of such an important organization when it comes to fishery conservation and habitat restoration.
Wide Open Spaces spoke with Wood about his role at Trout Unlimited, the objectives the organization takes on, and how he’s continuing the passionate goals set forth after an unforgettable trip to Alaska and an old New York Times article.
Wide Open Spaces: What sort of background information would help us understand how you got into the role you have at Trout Unlimited?
Chris Wood: Well, it depends on how far you want to go back. I came to TU immediately from working with the United States Forest Service in 2001. I had been deeply engaged in a rule making that protected 58 million acres of [public land], and these were some of the best hunting and fishing habitats on the planet. We had [established] a rule that prohibited road construction and most other forms of development in those areas. It was an extremely controversial rule if you could imagine, and one that had huge benefits for fish and wildlife.
I was basically an advisor to the chief of the Forest Service, the man who ran the agency, Mike Dombeck, who’s now on our board, evidently. One of my jobs was to take all the meetings Mike didn’t want to take. Because the Forest Service is a multiple use agency, I met with everyone from the oil and gas companies to the timber companies, to ski area associations on one side and any number of environmental groups and environmental representatives on the other, the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and so on and so forth.
One of the things that struck me during that period, was, I never once during that extremely important and very controversial rule making had a meeting request from a hunting or fishing organization. They just weren’t really in the debate about the disposition of public lands, some of which are just hugely important.
I mean, they’re the backyard of the little guy. You don’t have to pay to be able to fish or hunt on public lands, and we were talking about protecting some of the most important areas, in particular from a fisheries perspective, and a trout and salmon perspective. And yet I never logged a meeting with one of the hunting or fishing organizations.
I really wanted, when I left the Federal Service in 2001, to work for an organization that I thought could help to speak for sportsmen and women, and almost to create an analog to what the environmental community had been able to do, in terms of advocating for wilderness, and clean air, and clean water, and things like that. But, to do it from a hunting and fishing perspective.
Trout Unlimited was really the only organization I looked at. I loved the fact that they had a grassroots membership, which gave them relevance locally. They also had, albeit a small one, a policy presence in Washington D.C. So, that’s the short story about how I ended up at TU. The longer story involves a trip to Alaska when I was a fresh graduate out of college, completely clueless about salmon, or even geography.
I grew up in New Jersey, and had never really been west of western New Jersey. I went on a trip to Alaska, and, well, I’m not sure… do you want to hear this story?
CW: Okay, well it’s actually pretty funny, because it shows how ignorant I was. I was bartending, and coaching football, and making ice cream, putting my Liberal Arts education to good use. My buddy Mick Kelly was doing the same thing, but in Homer, Alaska, and he was living in a tent there on the Homer Spit. He said, ‘Woody, you want to come up to Alaska and we can fish for salmon?’
I said alright, and I had no idea really what salmon were. Of course I had heard of them, but I didn’t know anything about them. Anyway, I borrowed Mick’s car, it was an old VW Rabbit, and I drove it down the Kenai Peninsula along the Anchor River. I ended up getting there late in the afternoon, I set up camp on the beach, and I figured the next morning I would fish for salmon, again not really knowing what I was doing or anything about salmon.
So I woke at about three in the morning, with the water coming in my tent, because in this part of Alaska, they have 20-foot tides. I was used to, you know, 18-inch tides down at the Jersey Shore.
And so really, the distressing part of this story was, the VW Rabbit was parked in front of the tent. Needless to say, I spent the better part of the morning cleaning the engine out and getting the car running again, and I didn’t get on the Anchor until about, oh, probably four in the afternoon.
I started walking up the river, and I saw all these dead, dying fish. And I mean big fish, you know, giant fish. So I was there fishing for silvers, and these were the Kings, the Chinook Salmon that had already spawned. They had hooked jaws, and these huge humped backs, and they were sloughing off flesh, and I remember taking the tip of my fly rod and touching one of them, thinking this fish was dead, only to have it veer off, sluggishly, into the stream, almost like a zombie fish.
This is in the God’s honest truth, I thought to myself ‘Oh my God, there’s been an industrial accident here.’ I thought that somewhere up river, a train must have come off a trestle and dumped acid into the river, killing all the fish.
So, I had a pair of brand new, Ranger rubber waders, and I decided I wasn’t going to allow whatever was killing these fish to get on my waders. So I never actually stepped in the stream, but I saw a guy upstream of me fishing. And so I watched him for a while, and he was watching me watch him. After a while, he looked at me and he said ‘WHAT? Why are you looking at me?’
I said ‘What are you doing?’ He said ‘I’m fishing. I’m fishing for salmon.’
I said ‘Aren’t you worried about whatever killed all these fish getting on ya?’
He looked at me like I was crazy and said ‘Dude, those are salmon. It’s part of their life cycle.’
I said ‘Yeah, sure.’ So, I literally left the river that day without stepping foot in it. I went back to the Anchorage Public Library and took a book out on salmon, and learned about these remarkable creatures that return to their native streams, they spawn one time, and then their bodies provide the nutrients that keep strength in the pack. And I was just totally blown away.
When I got back, I had resigned from the ice cream factory, I finished out the football season, but the day I got back, I was seated at my parent’s kitchen table. My father came down, on a Monday morning, and said, ‘What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at work?’
I said “Dad, I quit. I resigned from the ice cream factory.” He said ‘Well what are you going to do?’
That morning, it just so happened that day, the New York Times, ran an article in the paper with a picture above the fold. It had a guy kneeling next to a lake.
This was the year that one sockeye salmon had made it back 868 miles, never feeding once, traversing eight dams, gaining 8,000 feet in elevation, only to find that there were no other sockeye that made it back to Redfish Lake in Idaho, in the Sawtooths, to spawn. The caption next to guy kneeling by the lake read ‘It saddens me that I work at a lake that’s named for a fish that doesn’t return anymore.’
So I said to my father, ‘Dad, I want to save the salmon.’
Now my father, who is from Newark, New Jersey… I won’t tell you what he said to me. It was very colorful.
But that is essentially what put me on the path to Trout Unlimited; a desire to try to save the salmon. And I carry that sentiment with me every day, even still.
WOS: Can you address some of the most important objectives for Trout Unlimited, or at least the ones that are front of mind every day?
CW: Absolutely. We basically do four things at Trout Unlimited. We protect the highest quality habitat for cold water fish, which is typically found high up in the watershed in smaller tributary streams.
Then, we realize we can’t manage those river systems in isolation of the rest of the landscape, particularly when given climate change, and the droughts, fires and floods that can wipe out the fish population. So we then work to reconnect those protected areas by doing things like improving in-stream flow loss in the West, to make sure there is water in rivers so fish can move from the headwaters down to the main stem.
And we’re obviously very involved in issues like dam removal. We’ve got a major effort we’ve been involved with here in California, where I am now. In California and Oregon, we’re trying to remove dams on the Klamath River that have been there for over a hundred years. Once we get those dams removed, it will open up over 350 miles of habitat for salmon and steelhead.
So, we protect the headwaters, try to reconnect those protected areas, and then finally, the last part of our biological agenda is to restore the valley bottoms, historically a more biologically productive portion of the landscape, which were developed first.
So protecting, reconnecting and restoring river systems is the biological work of TU. The social work is to ensure that we’re training the next generation of conservation stewards, so that all that good work on the landscape will endure. We have a major advancement in youth education across the organization, from the grassroots up to the top.
So that’s basically how we define what we do. You can cut that short by saying we simply make fishing better. That’s basically at the heart of everything we do. Everything we do on the landscape ultimately results in improved fishing, so that’s sort of the topical description of who we are and how we work.
Some of the highest priority issues that we’re working on now? Improve the Klamath, which I mentioned earlier, and then another really major priority for us is protecting a place in southwest Alaska called Bristol Bay. That’s probably our highest conservation priority right now.
This part of southwest Alaska is about the size of Ohio, but only 5,000 people live in it. What’s most remarkable about it is that there are seven rivers that drain into Bristol Bay. Two of them are called the Kvichak and the Nushagak. The Kvichak provides about half , fifty percent, of all of the world’s wild sockeye salmon. One river. And then the Nushagak, every year, is in the top two or three producers of Chinook salmon in the world.
It’s precisely in the headwaters of those two river systems that a Canadian mining company has proposed building what would be the world’s largest open pit gold mine. The only way to access the minerals would be through an open pit mine, and they would have to store the toxic materials behind an earthen lake that would be over 700 feet high, and several miles long. This is all in an area that’s highly seismically active. So we have put a major emphasis on protecting that fishery and keeping Bristol Bay intact.
This past Friday, we heard from the EPA that they were following our request and using their authority under the Clean Water Act to begin the process that ultimately could lead to the protection of Bristol Bay from large scale industrial mining.
WOS: Your biologically focused in a lot of different areas, but you also talked a bit about the grassroots, everyday angler connection. Can you talk about the network that you’re building, and how TU impacts the everyday angler?
CW: Yeah, that’s a great question. At heart we’re a grassroots organization. We’ve got over 400 chapters that are spread all over the country. Each of those chapters donates on average about 200 hours of community service, helping teach kids to fish, taking veterans fishing, and helping them to heal through fly fishing and time on the water, and importantly, doing stream habitat improvement and rehabilitation projects.
We’ve got about 155,000 members with aspirations to grow that really significantly. When you look at the work of TU, and I’ll go back to something I said earlier, if you fish for trout and salmon, there’s really no excuse not to be a TU member, because there’s no other organization that does anywhere near as much to actually improve fishing and make fishing better for rank and file anglers.
I think the secret sauce of our organization is that we’ve got these really dedicated, grassroots people who live in local communities, they are mechanics, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, and they’re able to harness their advocacy, and their interest in doing conservation locally, with 200 professional staff that are spread all around the country. There are 15 PhDs on staff, we have water lawyers and restoration specialists, and the blending of that professional staff with the passion of the grassroots is a pretty unbeatable combination.
I think in large part it speaks to the success of the organization when it comes to issues like taking down dams on the Klamath, or removing three dams on the Penobscot River in Maine. When we’re finished, [that project] will open up 1,200 miles of habitat for Atlantic salmon and other fish. So it’s that combination of leveraging the passion of grassroots with the science capabilities and policy capabilities at our national organization, that I think make TU really one of a kind, and in my view anyway, best in class in terms of the conservation work.
WOS: Do you have a favorite part of working for TU?
CW: I think I probably just answered that, but on a really visceral level, it has to do with the fact that I’m living my passion. I’m a passionate hunter, I’m a passionate angler, and to be able to actually have a job where I can make my avocation my advocation, that’s pretty special. That’s pretty cool. And in a very real way, every day, we’re making the world a little bit of a better place.
So it’s hard to beat the mission, but the people are what makes it really special. The conservation staff at TU are some of the most effective advocates for conservation in the business. Then you put on top of that these volunteers, who, some of them donate 20, 30 hours a week, particularly when they’re doing things like hosting youth camps. It’s just hard to beat. That team, that combination is pretty difficult to beat.
WOS: How often to you get to fish yourself? You mentioned you’re also a hunter, do you take opportunities to get outdoors?
CW: Oh yeah, I’ve got three boys who are under ten, all of whom love to fish. So we fish, basically once the weather gets better here and baseball season is over, we’ll fish every weekend if not more during the summer. And then I probably fish, associated with work, 30 days a year. Then I’ll fish another 20, probably on my own, just goofing off by myself or with my friends.
WOS: What’s something most people don’t know about trout or salmon?
CW: That’s a great question, actually. You know, one of the unfortunate things is that every native trout species in the country is either listed or has been proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act, with the exception of brook trout. And even brook trout are extirpated from more than half of their historic habitat. So this is a critter that needs our help.
The good news is that these are extraordinary resilient creatures. Take some of the work we do in the so-called driftless area in the Midwest. This is the unglaciated region of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. We’ve done habitat restoration on over 75 miles of river in the driftless area. We shocked the streams, where you go out and apply a light electric charge to the river and it shocks the fish up and you can count how many fish there are for miles. And when we do that pre-restoration, we find about 200-300 fish per mile. Once we finish the restoration, and go back in those same river miles, we see a tenfold increase. We go from 200 to 2,000 fish per mile.
So, as I mentioned earlier, the situation is grim if you care about trout and salmon, because their populations are in fact really reduced from historic levels. But the good news is that they’re extraordinarily resilient critters, and when you give them half a chance, they will come back. That’s what we’re seeing in all the projects we’re involved in around the country.
WOS: Do you think our nations trout fisheries are taken for granted?
CW: That’s a great question. It’s a really, really good question. I think a lot of anglers do take our trout fisheries for granted, in part because we have things like hatcheries, which can often mask habitat degradation. If the average angler goes out there and is catching a lot of 12- and 13-inch fish, he’s going to be really happy. But, he doesn’t realize those fish are being raised in concrete tanks, and they’re not actually wild or native fish.
So yeah, I do think that sometimes we can become a little bit complacent as anglers. The other thing is that, we think about all the issues that people have to worry about today. We have foreign wars, a shaky economy, shaky job market, climate change… and trout and salmon fishing can seem somewhat incidental. But, for the angler that gets involved and understands the link between conservation and improving fishing, we actually are able to punch well above our weight. We’re able to do everything from teaching kids about conservation through time on the water, to helping veterans to heal, as I mentioned earlier.
Every time we protect the headwaters of a river system, we’re simultaneously reducing downstream water filtration costs. Every time we reconnect a river to its flood plain, we’re seriously lessening the potential for downstream flooding. Every time we engage in habitat restoration, we’re providing literally tens of thousands of high-paying, family wage jobs. So if you take it on its face, trout fishing can seem like a fairly minor thing. But when you dig a little deeper into it, the effects of TU members, and the effect that they have on the communities around them and the world that we live in, it’s pretty profound.
WOS: Is there anything else you would like to mention?
CW: Well, we’re heading into our so-called field season, where a lot of our project and restoration work gets done, so I’d encourage everyone. If you’re near a trout fishery in this country, there’s a TU chapter near you. If you want to get involved, it’s very easy to do. Just go to TU.org.
We have a special kind of conservation, where we are equal opportunity conservationists at TU. We work with mining companies, timber companies, state and federal agencies, basically anyone who has an interest in improving trout and salmon habitats. If you have any interest in getting involved with TU, I encourage you to go to TU.org.