Heroes of Conservation: The Sportsmen Who Save Our Rivers

BLACKFOOT RIVER WESTSLOPE CUTTHROAT

THE FISH: Westslope cutthroat, bull, rainbow, and brown trout

THE PROBLEM: Poor logging, grazing, and irrigation practices; mining runoff; overfishing

"One day, Daryl came into the store and said, 'I'm going to start a Trout Unlimited chapter. I'll be president and you'll be vice president,'" says Becky Garland, whose family owns Garland's Town and Country general store in Lincoln, Montana. "If you knew Daryl, [you'd know why] I couldn't very well say no."

Below the storefront's 30-foot-wide mural of trout, elk, and deer, State Highway 200 winds to the floor of the Blackfoot Valley and meets one of America's most storied rivers. In the 1910s, when the writer Norman Maclean fished it, the Blackfoot River's broad pools and powerful runs produced creels full of enormous bull trout and pristine native Westslope cutthroats. By the time Maclean penned the last sentence of A River Runs Through It in 1973, the fishery was in serious decline. And by the day that Daryl Parker walked into Becky Garland's store in 1987, a lethal combination of mining runoff, overfishing, drought, and years of poor logging, grazing, and irrigation practices on the river's headwater tributaries had brought the Blackfoot to desperate straits.

"Several friends had been talking about the problems on the Blackfoot," Parker says. "We all wanted to do something."

They did. Sitting around the dining room table at the Parkers' ranch house outside of Lincoln, a group of sportsmen and citizens including Becky Garland, fishing guide Paul Roos, rancher Land Lindberg, logger Mark Gerlach, and Daryl and Sherrie Parker held the first meeting of what is now the Big Blackfoot Chapter of TU. The first step, says Garland, was to ask fisheries biologists to assess the river's problems. "They said they didn't have the funds. We said, 'What if we get you the funds?'"

In a month, the BBCTU raised $15,000 in private donations, and state fisheries biologists Don Peters and Ron Pierce began an exhaustive survey of the Blackfoot's tributaries--the river's lifeblood, where the native trout are born, reared, and migrate up to 60 miles from the main stem each year to spawn in ribbons of water often no more than a step across. Covering hundreds of miles of private land on foot, Peters and Pierce recorded culverts and irrigation dams that blocked migrating trout, channels that diverted them, and banks that had been churned into mud pits by cattle hooves. But repairing the damage meant getting the cooperation of the landowners.

Door-to-door, the volunteers, Peters, and Pierce spoke to ranchers. "It was difficult at first," says Garland. "We started with just a few landowners willing to take a chance. But once they saw the improvements we made, at our cost, they really became part of the team."

The recovery effort's reach was expanding in myriad directions. Chapter members sat down with Gary Sullivan of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who brought in critically needed federal funds. They met with mine owners and legislators to begin cleaning up toxic runoff bleeding into the watershed. They worked with timber companies and the Bureau of Land Management to improve logging practices. They motivated voters to block the proposal of a new cyanide heap-leach gold mine. All told, they reached out to a community with diverse--some thought incompatible--interests and began a groundbreaking cooperative effort now widely considered a model for future restorations.

Today, more than 100 citizens work with 27 state, federal, and nongovernmental groups and businesses in a broad coalition called the Blackfoot Challenge (of which the BBCTU is a partner), which to date has raised and spent more than $5 million to restore and protect the watershed.

"The fishery has really responded," says Bruce Farling, director of Montana TU. "There are more native trout and better fishing in general than I've seen in 30 years." Even though the Blackfoot's restoration is a work in progress, it's already a success story.

"The best thing you can take away from the Blackfoot is motivation," says Farling. "We did it here, and you can do it in your own backyard."

POTOMAC RIVER SMALLMOUTH BASS

THE FISH: Smallmouth, largemouth, and striped bass; walleyes, muskellunge, rainbow trout

THE PROBLEM: Municipal and industrial waste, acid-mine and agricultural runoff

"The fact that I run a guide service on the North Branch of the Potomac River is astonishing," says retired Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist Ken Pavol, who 20 years ago declared much of the North Branch dead for the foreseeable future.

In fact, the recent history of the entire 380-mile Potomac River is full of surprises. From the trickling spring at West Virginia's famed Fairfax Stone to the broad current that reflects our capital's monuments on its way to Chesapeake Bay, the Potomac is not so much a comeback story as it is a story of remarkable comebacks.

Upon seeing the river in 1608, Capt. John Smith raved, "Neither better fish, more plenty, nor more variety...had any of us ever seen in a place." Some 350 years later, with hundreds of millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage being pumped daily into the Potomac's metropolitan D.C. stretch alone, President Lyndon Johnson declared the "Nation's River" a "national disgrace."

In response to the 1965 Water Quality Act, and later the Clean Water Act, federal and local authorities poured more than $1 billion into modernizing the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in D.C. Finally, in 1975, a Washington-area angler made a landmark catch: "It was the first recorded largemouth bass in D.C. waters in over 30 years," says Jim Cummins, an aquatic biologist and director of living resources for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. It signaled the start of a healthy fishery, and in 1989 the Potomac hosted its first national BASS tournament.

On the middle Potomac and South Branch, meanwhile, improvements in both wastewater treatment and non-point pollution levels bolstered the reputation of an already notable smallmouth fishery in those areas. But until the early 1980s, the North Branch remained forgotten, poisoned by acid-mine runoff and a gout of industrial waste from the Westvaco Corp. paper mill. The Washington Post called the stretch a "fetid mix of orange, black, and blue."

Changes began with the 1982 construction of the Jennings-Randolph Dam. The resulting lake collected much of the acid runoff and allowed for coldwater releases of only the best quality and, in turn, a put-and-take trout fishery.

"It was a limited fishery, but it sparked something," says Pavol. "Before then, there was near total apathy about the North Branch. But when people saw the improvements upstream of Westvaco, they wanted changes downstream."

More than 100 citizens and anglers attended Westvaco's 1990 relicensing hearing, and the company subsequently spent some $15 million to clean up its effluent. Three years later, the MDNR stocked smallmouth bass. The Bureau of Mines implemented technology called lime dosing, which, says Pavol, "reduces acid like a giant Rolaids tablet." In 2000, Westvaco reduced its solids by another 50 percent.

"The result has been an utterly transformed river," says Pavol. "Last year, fishing downstream of the effluent, a friend and I hooked up at the same time. I reeled in a 15-inch largemouth, and he landed a 15-inch rainbow."

Today, as the upper North Branch gains a reputation as one of the top Eastern trout waters, the lower North Branch, South Branch, and middle Potomac are renowned smallmouth destinations, with the middle river recently gaining notable walleye and muskie fisheries. The tidal Potomac from D.C. to Port Tobacco is ranked among the top five largemouth fisheries in the United States.

"I'm really excited about the future," says Cummins. "There are stories of the Potomac once being literally packed with fish from bank to bank. Some people think these are exaggerations. I don't. And I believe we could see that again."

DETROIT RIVER WALLEYE

THE FISH: Walleyes, sturgeon, smallmouth bass, yellow perch

THE PROBLEM: Industrial and municipal waste

At the edge of the Motor City, 31 of the Detroit River's 32 miles are walled in concrete and steel. Then there's Humbug Marsh, the last, lone stretch of undeveloped shoreline before the river drains into western Lake Erie. And it was about to become a golf-course community. All that stood in the way was a permit hearing--and more than 2,000 Detroit citizens who packed the Carlson High School auditorium on an autumn night in 1998 to attend. "It was a catalytic event," says John Hartig, manager of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. "Those people not only saved the marsh; they embodied a new attitude that is utterly changing the face of the Detroit River."

In the mid-1960s, when Life magazine declared Lake Erie dead, due in part to a constant flood of phosphorus pouring from the Detroit River, this ¾-mile-wide strait, which marks the U.S.-Canada border, was a gutter of industrial waste and sewage. "It ran a different color every day," says Gary Towns of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "Red, yellow, green--depending on which pipes were spewing the sludge du jour."

But in the decade following the 1972 Clean Water Act and Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the United States and Canada, tough restrictions on point-source pollution brought one of the most astounding water-quality recoveries in our history. "Everything came together on both the river and the lake," says Towns. "By the mid-1980s, the walleye fishing was tremendous--perhaps the best in the world." Moreover, Detroit citizens, aware that their taxes paid for the river's cleanup, espoused a new sense of ownership.

Citizens' groups soon cropped up, perhaps none more influential than the Friends of the Detroit River, which coordinated a public relations campaign to save Humbug Marsh. "The turnout at that 1998 permit hearing is a great example of what's possible when local sportsmen, other citizens, and conservation groups work together at the grassroots level," says Robert Burns, Detroit Riverkeeper and member of the Friends of the Detroit River.

Shortly after that hearing, environmental leaders from the United States and Canada met to decide what they wanted for the lower Detroit. The result was legislation that President Bush signed into law on December 21, 2001, making the Humbug Marsh and 1,400 acres of adjoining lands into the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge--the first and only of its kind.

"To think," says Hartig, "this river was just another polluted waterway in the Rust Belt--a dumping ground that the city turned its back to. Now, it's becoming our front door. We have bald eagles nesting and sturgeon spawning for the first time in 30 years. We have anglers catching trophy walleyes in the reflection of the GM building. The river is now our No. 2 economic resource. Its recovery is a new model for conservation, and the sky is the limit."

MT. BALDY DRAINAGE APACHE TROUT

THE FISH: Thirteen stocks of native Apache trout

THE PROBLEM: Competition and hybridization with nonnative trout, overfishing

In June of 2004, 16-year-old Michael Lynch of Tucson, Arizona, was up to his shins in the West Fork of the Black River, installing water-temperature monitors. He was working on his Eagle Scout badge and, quite possibly, helping to make history.

Darting in the narrow pools of this and a handful of other trickling headwaters that drain Mount Baldy in Arizona's White Mountains are pure-strain Apache trout. A rare species evolved from coastal rainbows that migrated to the state as many as a million years ago, the Apache was one of the first fish protected under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1973. Now, it stands to become the first ever to be taken off the list--not by way of extinction.

At the turn of the last century, these gold-sided trout occupied some 600 miles of White Mountain drainages. By midcentury, competition and hybridization with introduced nonnative trout and overfishing left the last of them hanging on in a mere 30 miles of 13 streams largely within the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. Realizing the severity of the problem, the White Mountain Apache Tribe took the first step toward conservation by closing fishing for the species in 1955.

After two years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the trout was downlisted to threatened. Encouraged by the fledgling recovery, representatives from the White Mountain Apache Game and Fish Department, the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the USFWS, and the U. S. Forest Service formed the Apache Trout Recovery Team, with the goal of creating self-sustaining populations.

Eight years later, USFWS personnel established the one and only brood stock of pure-strain Apache trout, both to aid in recovery and to provide sport-fishing opportunities.

"We were making good progress," says Mike Lopez of the AGFD. "But it wasn't until the late '90s that we firmly set our sights on total delisting."

In 2002, the Forest Service and the AGFD set out a plan to establish 30 self-sustaining populations in the trout's original range, including headwater streams of the White, Black, and Little Colorado Rivers. To do so, they're chemically treating streams to rid them of nonnatives, isolating the native population with barriers, and improving and monitoring the habitat. "Of the required streams, we have five to go and plan to treat the last one in 2007," says Lopez. "It's a big job, but we've gotten a lot of help."

Much of that help comes from Trout Unlimited, which in 2003 received a $205,000 federal grant specifically for the delisting of Apache trout. This is the primary project of the 500-member Old Pueblo Chapter. It has recently enlisted help from the Boy Scouts, including Michael Lynch. "I've been going up to the West Fork since I was 3 years old," Lynch says. "I'm excited to get my Eagle badge, but it'll mean even more when Apache trout are delisted."

PENOBSCOT RIVER ATLANTIC SALMON

THE FISH: Atlantic salmon, smallmouth and striped bass, American shad, brook trout

THE PROBLEM: Dam building, industrial and municipal waste, overfishing

It's a short 30-mile surge from the sea before salmon hit the cement of Veazie Dam on Maine's Penobscot River. From Veazie's fish ladder, it's another 8 miles to Great Works Dam. Then a mere 2 miles to Millford Dam below Indian Island on the Penobscot Indian Reservation, where on weekends, tribal member John Banks grabs a fishing rod and pushes his canoe into the current.

"The river has been our home since the Ice Age," he says. "I think about our connection to its waters and fish. As we say, 'We are the Penobscot River.'"

It's a connection, says Banks, the Penobscot Nation's natural resources director, that's been badly compromised. "In our oral history, we have a story of crossing the Penobscot on the backs of salmon without getting your ankles wet. Today, you could cross it without seeing a single fish."

Roughly two centuries of dam building, pollution, and overfishing brought the slow demise of the Penobscot's famous fishery, which once boasted some 100,000 spawning Atlantic salmon. For decades, starting with the Taft administration, the first fish caught in the spring was shipped to the White House and presented to the president. Today, only about 1,000 salmon return, and President Clinton was the last to get one. Still, the Penobscot remains the only significant Atlantic salmon run in the nation--the last best hope for a species that's all but extinct in the Lower 48.

Since 1972, the Clean Water Act has vastly improved the Penobscot's water quality, and strict creel restrictions have addressed the problem of overfishing. But nothing has stood so concretely in the way of spawning salmon and other migratory fish as the river's hydroelectric dams. By 1999, the Penobscot Nation and sportsmen's groups had been battling power companies over dam relicensing and fish passage for 20 years, and they readied themselves for a new foe in May of that year when the PPL Corp. of Allentown, Pennsylvania, purchased six dams on the river. "We were putting on our war paint," Banks says. What they couldn't have expected, however, were combatants who sympathized with their goals.

Scott Hall, now PPL's manager of environmental services, has worked beside the roar and spray of the Penobscot's dams for 15 years. "This is where I raise my family," he says. "I take my kids fishing for smallmouth bass here."

When the dams changed hands, Hall and PPL manager of generating assets Dick Fennelly saw an opportunity for a fresh start. "Having worked for the previous owners, we were all too familiar with the constant head-butting over the dams," Hall says. "We felt there was a better way to do business."

In October of 1999, John Banks, Scott Hall, and other representatives of PPL and the Penobscot Nation, along with the Atlantic Salmon Federation, the USFWS, and state agencies, put their feet under the same table. Five years of negotiations later, the PPL Corp. and the coalition (now numbering six groups) known as the Penobscot Partners signed an agreement on July 15, 2004, guaranteeing the latter a five-year option to buy the Veazie, Great Works, and Howland dams for $25 million. In exchange, the partnership cleared the path for increased power generation at six other dams.

The current plan is to demolish the Veazie and Great Works dams and fit Howland Dam with a state-of-the-art fish bypass by 2010, opening some 500 miles of the river. But before any concrete crumbles, the partnership must raise at least $50 million. In 2005, Maine senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins helped secure $1 million toward the acquisition. And as of press time, the U. S. Department of the Interior, a signatory on the agreement, has proposed $1 million in its 2006 budget. Additional funds will be needed, however, from a variety of federal agencies.

Still, the agreement alone is being hailed as the most important Atlantic salmon restoration effort in 200 years, and as a blueprint for future cooperation between power companies and sportsmen's groups in a nation whose migrating fish contend with thousands of dams.

"Calling something a win-win situation is usually a bunch of bunk," says Hall. "This is the real deal."

AMERICA'S TROUBLED WATERS

THESE THREE FISHERIES ARE NEAR COLLAPSE AND COULD USE COMEBACKS OF THEIR OWN. FOR MORE ON AMERICA'S TROUBLED WATERS, GO TO FIELDANDSTREAM.COM.

1 SNAKE RIVER SALMON & STEELHEAD Salmon and steelhead runs on the Snake used to be the stuff of legends. But since four dams went up on Washington's lower Snake in the last 40 years, the number of fish climbing from the Pacific to spawn has dropped by 90 percent. One of the river's six species has already disappeared. Studies show dam removal is the best way to save these fish. President Bush's alternative plan--a $6 billion series of techno-fixes--was rejected by a federal judge in May.

2 KERN RIVER GOLDEN TROUT Isolated in the Kern River headwaters high in the Sierra Nevada, golden trout evolved over 10,000 years. But these fish with the fiery red streak and charcoal spots are interbreeding themselves out of existence. Hybridization with introduced rainbows has reduced the range of pure stocks from 450 square miles to 18. To identify remaining populations, volunteers with California Trout are hiking into remote streams to take tissue samples from trout caught on flies.

3 MISSISSIPPI & MISSOURI RIVERS PALLID STURGEON Known for their tenacity, pallid sturgeon have swum in the Mississippi and Missouri since the days of dinosaurs. Over the last 150 years, the rivers have been dammed and deepened into shipping lanes, eliminating the pallid's habitat. The species was listed as endangered in 1990 after the number of sightings fell from 500 to 65 over a 20-year period. In a last-ditch attempt to prevent extinction, artificial breeding efforts are under way. --CATHERINE DIBENEDETTO

For information on the conservation organizations that are helping to save these rivers and others, go to fieldandstream.com.

WHO'S YOUR HERO?

SEND US YOUR NOMINATIONS FOR THE FIELD & STREAM HEROES OF CONSERVATION AWARDS

The sportsmen behind these comeback stories set an example for every hunter and fisherman who cares about the land. But there are more than five conservation projects going on throughout the country. We want to spotlight those efforts as well, and we want your help to do it.

That's why we're announcing the FIELD & STREAM Heroes of Conservation Awards--a program that recognizes sportsmen who are taking care of the land.

We're looking for nominations of an individual or a group of people who are involved in a conservation effort. No project is too small, but it must be hunting or fishing related, and already under way. It could be a conservation group that's creating duck habitat, or someone in your town who cleans trash out of a trout stream. And if you're working on a project, nominate yourself.

To enter, go to fieldandstream.com/heroes, complete the application form there, and submit it by January 1, 2006. Nominations will be reviewed by a panel of F&S editors and conservation leaders, and the best projects will appear in the magazine in 2006. --THE EDITORS