The Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited has lost sight of its mission

The Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited has lost sight of its mission

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Eddie Olwell

Eddie Olwell

I am confused and shocked at the Bitterroot Chapter of Trout Unlimited recommendation to close the upper West Fork (Painted Rocks Dam — Canoe Access) to all floaters. I first became a TU member over 40 years ago not long after catching my first brook trout in the Catskill Mountains in 1975. My involvement with the organization continued, learning to tie flies at my local chapter in the 1980s, and becoming a life member in the 1990s.

I began guiding on the Bitterroot River in 1999. During my guide/outfitter career I increased my support of TU and the Bitterroot chapter.

I have served five years on the board of directors including two as chapter president. I have given much time, money and sweat to the organization donating trips, money and business sponsorships. I have written and been awarded an Embrace a Stream grant for a local project, organized several volunteer days, attended countless meetings, and volunteered for the Bugger program.

At the state level, I have represented TU at the Montana legislature and FWP commission on several issues including streamside setbacks, a ban on cyanide heap-leach mining and motorized restrictions on the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers. I have donated annually to the guide” Tip of the Hat Program” since its inception.

Nationally I’ve contributed to the TU Business Member Program. Aside from TU, I also support several local and state conservation organizations that are more effective at watershed conservation and restoration. Some may question my commitment to conservation and TU, but my track record should speak for itself.

This opinion on a float closure is inconsistent with TU’s mission and conservation approach as well as the chapter's past policy.

One can go to TU.org and read the organization's approach to conservation. “We believe in bringing all parties to the table to find proactive solutions that meet the challenge facing cold water fisheries. We work to protect important habitat, reconnect degraded waterways and restore trout populations. The best conservation work comes from true partnerships between landowners, agencies, nonprofits, municipalities and other stakeholders.”

The chapter position on a float closure not only puts user groups at odds, but would exclude a large number of floaters, including commercial, noncommercial, resident and non-residents alike.

BRTU making the argument that this is about habitat is not only hypocritical but disingenuous as well. They continue to be inactive in addressing greater threats to fisheries and habitat in the Bitterroot watershed. I have not seen the chapter organize a local restoration project in well over 10 years.

As for past chapter policy, the restriction on floaters would undermine the commercial regulations put in place on the upper Bitterroot and West fork in 2018. This regulation on commercial use was largely promoted by BRTU. The 16 member volunteer citizen committee included myself as well as five TU members who spent over 50 hours negotiating and drafting the plan.

The regulation was designed to reduce crowding, limit commercial use, and offer noncommercial sections for local anglers. So far the regulation has been effective at dispersing traffic, reducing commercial use, and has shown satisfaction with many noncommercial anglers. Closing one of the four regulated sections to floating would increase crowding and conflict, putting more pressure on other sections of the river.

Their proposed change would render the regulation that we worked on ineffective. I’m not sure the chapter even understands the political, legal, and administrative challenges such a large regulation change would present.

The Bitterroot Conservation District (BCD) has recently formed a task force made up of government agencies and West Fork stakeholders. As a member of the task force, I understand the goal is to educate the public on the 310 law and process, reduce illegal cutting while still providing some safety and access to floaters. A goal I feel shouldn’t’ be difficult to achieve.

To date, there is only one complaint before the BCD for woody debris cutting. Again, three TU members are on the task force but don’t seem to be in agreement. Two of the members agree with the goal while one from BRTU has the opinion to close the river section abandoning any chance at collaboration.

It appears that the chapter’s agenda has been hijacked by a small group of wade fishermen and West Fork landowners who wish to privatize this section of the river shutting out a large segment of the public.

If BRTU continues down this path they will only alienate current members and potential new ones while making the organization even less relevant in local conservation. I can no longer support TU on a local, state, or national level. I urge BRTU to please come back to the center and work with us on a collaborative solution that works for all parties involved.

— Eddie Olwell, Stevensville

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