The cell phone went dead four times in half an hour. From Pennsylvania’s Route 80, Jeff Yates kept calling back because our conversation about conservation was important and timely, in light of an administration bent on overturning basic environmental protections, some as basic as clean water. As the Director of Volunteer Operations for Trout Unlimited, Yates tirelessly supports, trains and encourages 400 chapters and regional councils with more than 3500 volunteer leaders across the country. His passion for cold waters where fish thrive and mentoring those who desire to protect them has never been more needed.
“I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist.” Donald Trump’s words to a group of C.E.O.’s in the White House were followed quickly by the caveat that our environment would not take precedence over business and jobs. In a political landscape twisted with lawsuits and investigations, the elimination of protective regulations via executive orders and the whitewashing of climate change’s realities, Nature is taking a hit.
“The beauty of conservation,” Yates said, “is that it cuts across all party lines.”
“Waders wet and hands dirty,” he said, referencing how things get done by folks motivated to improve stream flows, restore river paths to the way Nature had them the first time and remove impoundments affecting water quality and raising temperatures. “When it comes down to it, the grass roots, the local chapters, are really the heart of our organization,” Jeff said, who joined Trout Unlimited when he was eleven. Yates enjoys personal contact with chapters across country. “We are a conservation organization made up of anglers. We use that passion to drive our conservation,” he said.
“Perhaps the best use of our limited financial resources should be in dealing with making sure that every person in the world has clean water,” then candidate Trump wrote in a Science Debate questionnaire. Last year, Trout Unlimited sponsored more than 1100 conservation projects like stream side trash cleanups, introductory fly fishing classes and tree plantings with 1600 youth education projects and 585 veteran projects.
Addressing the administration’s irresponsible reversal of so many positive protections, TU CEO Chris Wood wrote, “Clean water is not a political issue. It is a basic right of every American, water runs downhill, gravity works cheap, and it never takes a day off. We all live downstream.”
Truth is, global warming is not a hoax, nor was it conceived by the Chinese but what the President may not comprehend is that climate change is not weather and the environment is clearly being affected by us. More than 7.3 billion of us are clearing trees, driving more than a billion automobiles, burning coal, laying asphalt roads over porous earth and according to the FAO, spreading more than 200 million tons of fertilizer. We are consuming, depositing, developing, burying, mining, harvesting, drilling, even extinguishing in unprecedented levels. And that’s where Jeff Yates steps in to restore some balance.
“We are literally in the trenches, making sure water is clean,” Yates added.
“Americans who used to take clean air and water for granted are waking up to the danger. Membership in environmental groups is skyrocketing,” wrote Eric Pooley, Senior Vice President of the Environmental Defense Fund. Last year TU, a lean and efficient $50 million non-profit organization where eighty-eight cents of every dollar raised goes directly to conservation, supported 725,000 hours of volunteer work from its 300,000 member. With a mission of “Conserving, protecting and restoring North America’s cold water fisheries and their watersheds,” volunteers are its backbone and equally as important, its heartbeat.
Yates’ message is conservation; members may be women and men who fish but they’re focused on getting the good work done first. “There is so much opportunity to make people fall in love with fishing and fall in love with conservation,” he said.
“I don’t like the idea because I want to keep the lands great,” Trump said in 2015 Field & Stream interview, referring to moving federally protected public lands out of federal control. In reality, he’s quickly doing the opposite. Under the guise of exfoliating a budget heavy with protective regulations, he’s welcoming the exploitation of public lands for fossil fuels. This comes as almost 15% of US power production is a result of renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Such focus ignores the value of open space which the Outdoor Industry Foundation calculates at $646 billion. “There are significant attacks on things we hold dear,” said Jeff, “like the (Alaskan) Pebble Mine, it’s a focused assault public lands.”
Not all value is registered in dollars.
To resist this assault, TU volunteers donate with their hands, wallets and voices. “They’ve responded in spades to protect public lands,” Yates said, about the volunteers who repair streams, protect native brook trout and log water temperatures but who also speak directly to their representatives. “It’s really amazing how active our local members have been in voicing opposition to this pressure.” Stripping away environmental protections for interests of avarice or spite serves only a limited number of blind supporters. It also ignores our relatively short time as residents and our giant, growing footprint.
“We’re in a climate of thinking globally and acting locally. There are so many large forces bearing down on us,” Yates noted.
The biggest of those might be in The White House.
“I want to use hairspray,” Trump said at a campaign stop. “They say, ‘Don’t use hairspray, it’s bad for the ozone.’ So I’m sitting in this concealed apartment…It’s sealed, it’s beautiful. And I’m not supposed to be using hair spray?” We really need Jeff Yates and Trout Unlimited.
TU founding member Art Neumann said, “Take care of the fish, then the fishing will take care of itself.” Yates sees his greatest assets in small towns, in meeting halls, along sunny pools where kids cast for bluegills and adults scratch their heads wondering how to protect both. Yates is persistent. Water is always on his agenda. He’s driving all over the country, talking about taking care of fish and his love of volunteerism through a crackly phone because it matters.
It’s a call the President should take.
Trout Unlimited is standing at a modern day Hastings Cutoff. Jeff Yates is encouraging us to take the route which protects and does not pillage, the one where century old choices can be reversed in backyard streams and silent headwaters. It’s the route reminding us we are neither the last nor the most important generation and that our very survival relies on clean water.
It’s the route which reconnects disconnected streams, be they driftable or political.
Todd Corayer is a lifelong fisherman who lives not far from Rhode Island’s Saugatucket River with his wife, who supports his fishing mainly to get him out of the house and a young son who consistently catches more trout than him. Both are Trout Unlimited members.