Last winter I spent a number of weekends working with a group of volunteers on small trout streams in Western Wisconsin. We were doing stream improvement work, mostly removing invasive black alder and buckthorn from stream banks. The roots of these species trap silt and cause erosion that widens streams, making them shallower and warmer.
Those work days were organized by the local chapter of Trout Unlimited, but the people doing the work were not all avid trout anglers. Many were smallmouth and musky anglers who understand that cold, clean water in tributaries leads to cool, clean water in the larger rivers downstream. Protecting the phenomenal musky and smallie fishing in this region means working to protect streams that contain neither species.
Using Webster's definition of the term, everyone working on these days was an environmentalist, although a fair number of them would recoil at the label: "Wait a minute, mister, environmentalists are tree huggers and we are hugging these trees just long enough to throw them on a fire and burn them. Environmentalists wear tie dyed shirts and silly, round wire-rimmed glasses and drive Volkswagen busses with 'Visualize World Peace' stickers. We drive F-150s and Tundras." You get it.
So, let's use the term "conservationist" instead of "environmentalist" because it seems less politically and culturally loaded even though the two terms are essentially synonyms. Our group of volunteers were acting as conservationists working to protect a resource we care about.
But, why do we care? To me, that's an important question. If the answer is only that we care because we want to catch fish, then the work we do on small streams is unimportant. We could just build big concrete holding ponds and stock them with fish and catch them there. Probably more and bigger fish than we catch in a wild environment. My guess is that few people reading this are interested in that kind of experience. I'm certainly not. I would quit fishing if that were what it were. So, let's agree that, as anglers, we collectively care about the environment. Just think about what drives so many of us to save money for a trip to Canada or Alaska or the Boundary Waters. Most of us want to fish for wild fish in a pristine place.
So, why is it so difficult to have important discussions about a thing that most of us essentially agree about? My guess is that it's because we, as a group, don't agree on a whole host of other issues. We have differing opinions about economic policy, health care, guns, social justice, and a bunch of cultural issues. I would posit that it's the fear that finding common ground on one issue might lead to compromise on other issues that drives us apart on an issue that we agree upon. If I admit that I agree with you about this thing, then I will have to compromise on some other thing. This is a fallacy, by the way. We are complex beings, capable of agreeing about one thing and disagreeing about another.
I would also argue that there are people in the world who don't care about wild fish in pristine places and, in fact, see such things as an impediment to their goals, which often involve money and power. For instance, the owners of a copper mining company might care a lot more about digging copper out of the ground and selling it than they do about a wild river or trout, salmon, smallmouth or muskies. If they can convince us to hate each other over some difference of opinion, they can convince some portion of us to become silent or stop working to protect wild fish in pristine places, the thing we agree about, which allows them to get what they want: money and power.
From where I stand, I can see a couple of strategies people use to distract anglers from their common goal. The first is to convince us that there are two teams and we need to be loyal to one or the other even if it means giving up a thing we love and care about. They will say that the most important thing is for our team to win. The team is more important than any other association you may have and being true to the message matters above all else. Any variance is capitulation.
As anglers who care about wild fish in pristine places, we have to reject this strategy. It divides us and keeps from working together to protect the places and fish we care about. What if a pacifist, bicycle-riding vegetarian and a gun-owning, Harley-riding carnivore got together on a Saturday for a river clean-up, talked fishing, and had a beer at the end of the day? Sounds great. What's not to like about finding such common ground? Kind of like the Christmas during WWI when the German and British soldiers got together, sang carols, played soccer, and exchanged gifts. Well, We can't exactly keep the war going with that kind of thing going on! What if, like the common soldiers in WWI, the war isn't in our best interest? I'm of the opinion that it's not. It might be in somebody's best interest, but not mine. It's certainly not doing wild fish in pristine places any favors.
The second strategy used to dissuade us from working together for wild fish in pristine places is to point out hypocrisy in our position. For instance, somebody might say, "Oh sure, you say you don't want a copper mine, but you say it using a computer that's full of copper! Hypocrite!" Or, "If you don't want dams, you must not want electricity. How are you going to tie flies in the winter without any lights? Hypocrite!"
I have some sour news for most of us. The only position you can take as an adult in modern society that will not involve hypocrisy is to say, "I want money and power and I don't care who or what I destroy to get it." Every other position, taken to its extreme, will involve some kind of hypocrisy and compromise. If everyone decided to protect cows by not eating them, it would be the end of cows. If we all became hunters to eat, there would be no animals left. If you want to enjoy wild fish in a pristine place, you'll burn petroleum to get there and that petroleum will destroy the wild fish and pristine place! Hypocrite! The only way to completely avoid hypocrisy is to say that I don't care about anyone or anything other than myself and all of my actions will reflect that. It's that or die on a cross and most of just don't have that in us. So, we compromise and do the best we can. I think advocating for and working to protect wild fish in pristine places is doing the best I can. I'll do it and just ignore the ways I'm a hypocrite by doing so.
The coming years are going to present some very real challenges to anglers. Most of us won't have the resources to buy a plane ticket and fly to a place where wild fish and pristine places still exist. We either have to stand united and work to save the resources in our back yards or they are going to be destroyed. Don't believe that? Want a crystal ball? Look at what has happened to steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. We can either get over our other differences and work together or stay divided and hope for the best. Any competent military officer will tell us that hoping for the best is not a strategy.
Sometime this year, there will be work days on streams somewhere near me. It might involve cutting invasive trees or stabilizing banks or picking up trash. It will probably involve rolling up my sleeves and working side by side with somebody who has some different idea about how the world should work. I'm going to show up. When we're done, maybe we'll sit on a tailgate and have a beer or soda and talk about our love of wild fish and pristine places. It'll feel great and will be a start toward making things better. Join us?