This interview with Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood is part of OutdoorHub’s Leaders of Conservation series, in which we sit down with leaders of the North American conservation movement to learn more about the stories behind their organizations and people.
On a warm July night in 1959, 16 men gathered at the home of George Griffith on the shores of Michigan’s Au Sable River. Griffith, a hosiery salesman and avid conservationist, had invited over 60 for the inaugural event. Despite the low turnout, it was there that an organization called Trout Unlimited (TU) was born. More than half a century later, Trout Unlimited now stands as one of the largest conservation organizations in the world, with more than 400 chapters across North America and a mailing list of over 150,000 registered members. Trout Unlimited President and CEO Chris Wood told me that the organization’s key goals have changed little since its founding.
“In some ways Trout Unlimited hasn’t changed at all. Take one of our founding fathers, Art Neumann, who is still alive to this day,” Chris said. “He’s about 94 years old and living in Michigan right now, and one of the sayings he’s fond of is that ‘If you take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself.’”
That saying has become the motto of the organization as a whole, especially after Neumann—a toolmaker who eventually became TU’s first Executive Director—took office in 1962.
“I think that idea very much still works for us as an organization,” Chris continued. “Our members aren’t that concerned about, say, what we need to do to catch more fish. What they’re about is creating the conditions, in which, those fish can survive and thrive. It’s always been a very action-oriented organization from our local chapters up to our state councils and to our staff around the country. We’ve always had a very strong on-the-ground component to what we do.”
Listen to Chris talk about the importance of the Clean Water Act in the video below:
Trout Unlimited’s mission is to conserve, protect, and restore North America’s cold-water fisheries. To that end the organization works towards reconnecting tributaries, fighting invasive species, removing unneeded dams, and making sure that future generations will have access to the same opportunities that anglers have today.
“We do a whole lot of restoration in dozens of watersheds around the country,” Chris shared. “We also have, and I think this is pretty unique to us, [a] pretty strong advocacy arm so we can do both policy and litigation and on-the-ground habitat conservation. I think that is pretty unique in the conservation space and it has been a consistent hallmark of TU for 55 years.”
For those five and a half decades, TU has worked across a million miles of cold-water habitat toward efforts like listing the Atlantic salmon as an endangered species, getting involved in the controversial Tellico Dam construction, and the Western Water Project, which sought to restore rivers stripped barren by mining practices.
“Those are some of the broader legacies that TU has been involved with, but some of our greatest achievements are ones that don’t get as much publicity, and they occur daily,” Chris said. “For instance, our restoration work in areas such as Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois where we have recovered 75 miles of streams. What I mean by recover is that they find 200 to 300 fish per mile pre-restoration and, after we peel the stream banks back and reseed the area and put the natural bends back in the river, within a year they see a tenfold increase in fish. It’s remarkable, and these stories may not be as nearly as sexy as some of the political issues we’re dealing with, but these successes happen on a daily occurrence all around the country.”
Chris himself comes from a lengthy history in the conservation field, having previously worked for the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. As two of the largest organizations in the United States based on the sheer acreage under their supervision, these agencies have often been maligned as being too bureaucratic. For Chris, knowing the ins and outs of these organizations makes his current role that much easier.
“I came into the non-profit side of conservation after spending 11 years in government work. I think that it gave me a broader perspective than if I went into the non-profit side or private sector right out of school,” he explained. “When you think of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, combined they manage upwards of 20 percent of the entire US landmass. Those two agencies in particular have a really difficult balancing act given that they’re managing under a multiple-use mandate. It made me realize the difficult charge that our state and federal land managers have, and it made me value working in partnership with those agencies to achieve mutual conservation goals rather than reflexively lining up in opposition to them.”
When Chris first joined TU, it consisted of little more than a few dozen employees at the organization’s Arlington national office and scattered across the country. Trout Unlimited has since expanded to nearly 200 employees in the field tackling local and regional issues. There are about 35 employees now at TU’s headquarters, but Chris said that the focus has always been in the field where the issues are.
“A significant change over the past 10 to 15 years is that we didn’t use to have PhDs on staff. Today we have about 15 scientists who help us from in everything from stream restoration to stream ecology to understanding issues like climate change and how we can armor watersheds in the face of drought and floods. The big change is in our capacity to take on multiple issues at the same time,” Chris shared.
If you were to look through TU’s program list, you’d find that the organization is pushing forward to restore habitat for coho salmon in California, lobbying for protections for brook trout in New England, and cleaning up abandoned mines and their impact on the West. Headlining that list is the issue of Bristol Bay. Standing alongside local residents, commercial fishermen, business owners, and other conservation groups such as the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, TU is working to stop a potentially disastrous mine from being built in the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.
“I was there last week and in the Kvichak River alone three million fish had returned already,” TU’s president recalled.
Millions of Chinook, chum, coho, pink, and sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay every year, which also supports a diverse variety of wildlife on-shore. The Pebble Mine proposal would create the largest open-pit mine in North America, right on top of an area known to be active for earthquakes. It is estimated that the mine would need to store billions of tons of waste material on site.
Chris said that TU has a long history of working with industry interests, but this issue has put conservationists squarely against the mine’s construction.
“We very much believe in being equal-opportunity conservationists. If industry groups want to work with us, well by gosh we welcome that,” he said. “On the other hand there are just some places you shouldn’t be building huge open-pit mines and Bristol Bay is one of those. It’s hard to say it’s a collaborative effort, unless you’re talking about all the people opposed to the mine.”
Learn more about why Bristol Bay is important below:
Chris said that TU is able to devote 90 cents of every dollar sent into the organization to its programs, such as advocating for the protection of Bristol Bay. TU’s sound financial management and transparency has netted the organization a sterling four stars with Charity Navigator, the highest possible. Chris mentioned that the recognition is point of pride for him and his staff, and a promise that TU has much more to do.
“We believe in being lean, mean, and hungry,” the lifelong angler concluded.
We would like to thank Chris for taking the time to talk with us. For more profiles of leaders of conservation, please read our recent interview with Vanishing Paradise Sportsmen Outreach Coordinator Andy McDaniels.
Image courtesy Chris Wood