TU in Turmoil

TU in Turmoil

A stream-access issue roils fly-fishing's leading conservation organization

  • By: Jeff Hull
What to make of a family that keeps fighting over the same thing?

You can always side with the loudest.

In the case of the trauma rippling through Trout Unlimited's 152,000-member family, that would be Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, one of the highest-profile of TU's 36 state councils. Farling has been upset over an abrupt proposal in March by Bob Teufel, acting chairman of TU's Board, to prohibit all TU chapters and state councils from participating in any disputes over stream-access rights.

Thanks in part to a long history of Montana TU chapters fighting attempts to erode public access, Montana enjoys one of the most permissive stream-access laws in the country. But an influx of wealthy landowners seeking to bar access to waterways in the Rocky Mountain West and elsewhere has shuffled the issue onto a hotplate. Farling thinks Teufel's proposal to ban local TU affiliates from fighting for existing access rights pits the grassroots membership against what he sees as an out-of-touch national leadership more interested in appeasing potential donors than minding the calls-or catcalls-of a significant portion of its constituency.

"It comes down to what kind of organization are we?" Farling says. "Are we run by the grassroots, or are we run by a handful of people from the top down?"

Of course, you can always side with the strongest.

Here, that would mean Charles Gauvin, TU's president and CEO for the past 16 years-and FR&R's 1997 Angler of the Year-who helmed the transformation of the organization from a lurching, debt-ridden bundle of good intentions into a powerhouse of habitat protection currently boasting an $18.5 million annual budget. Gauvin, who for years has been advocating a ban on participating in access disputes, says stream access fights too often wind up as contentious affairs that drain precious resources and "will almost always hurt TU in some way." In a March 14 memo to the grassroots leadership, he argued that a prohibition was necessary to guide the organization beyond an "urgent and difficult position," and to allay discomfort among some of the Board's trustees, who think a conservation-driven organization like TU has no business straying into divisive access issues.

"I find it preposterous that some in TU are now claiming that involvement in access disputes is contemplated by the organization's mission," Gauvin wrote in an April 4 e-mail to FR&R. "I am also outraged that anyone would have the chutzpah to suggest that somehow TU's conservation mission is being sold out to wealthy landowners."

But what about the family members in the middle?

In TU's case, these would be the organization's 152,000 members, who are aligned in various chapters under 36 state councils, each of which elects a representative to the National Leadership Council (NLC), a grassroots congress meant to complement the more than 30 members of the Board of Trustees. (TU by-laws mandate that the Board include up to 10 grassroots trustees; the remainder, aside from Gauvin, who is an ex-officio Board officer, are at-large trustees nominated by current trustees and elected as a slate by the NLC.) The membership, through the NLC, is charged with developing and implementing the organization's conservation agenda. Ten days after Teufel made his proposal to prohibit stream-access activities, the NLC produced a resolution that called the process by which the prohibition had been proposed "fatally flawed," and "poor governance."

If the NLC's swift and prickly response to Teufel's proposal is a fair measure, much of this branch of the family, while perhaps not as zealous as Farling about access, vociferously begs to differ with Gauvin. Teufel personally received 189 e-mails in the wake of his proposal, a sizable majority of which expressed sharp opposition to either the policy or the process. TU chapter heads in states including Montana, Colorado, Minnesota and Wisconsin have invoked words like "enflamed," "seething," and "firestorm," to describe the reaction of their members.

"If this [proposal] passed," says Greg Dietl, Wisconsin's Kiap-TU-Wish chapter president, "my gut feeling is that we'd have a whole lot of folks in our chapter who would say, 'I'm not paying my dues, I'm getting out.'"

Farling is not wrong: His perspective has gained the traction it has because there appears to be a fissure in TU's foundation.

Other members refer to it as a case of "two cultures"-the sense among some that the national staff is comprised of "tweedy bow-tie folks who don't have any interest in us," according to one grassroots volunteer from Wisconsin, or, put more delicately by a former NLC member, a "tension about sensitizing the staff about respecting the role of the grassroots." Stream-access disputes, often pitting grassroots anglers against rich landowners, tend to highlight differences that might exist between those highly motivated, hands-on volunteers, whose value cannot be counted in dollars, and the cadre of high-powered trustees, whose value is in generating the dollars volunteers count on.

It takes serious rainmakers and high-dollar talent to run the myriad restoration and protection projects TU involves itself with. TU has emerged as one of North America's premiere conservation groups precisely because the organization has managed to couple its passionate grassroots army with a Board distinguished by awesome fundraising capacity. Recently the national leadership has talked about taking that combination to the next level. A capital campaign with goals above $100 million has been envisioned. Many grassroots members can't help but notice that, coincidentally or not, the recent flurry of interest in an access ban coincides with visions of growing TU's budget by an order of magnitude.

To the credit of its professional staff, TU's "two cultures" have worked together with happy results throughout the organization's history. In fact, many TU grassroots leaders maintain that the current discussion concerning a possible ban on access disputes wouldn't be at all odious if the organization had not just settled that very question, after many months of negotiation, less than a year ago.

The process began back in 2005, when Gauvin originally called for a prohibition on participation in access disputes. "That prompted a strong reaction from folks in chapters and councils all over the country," says John "Duke" Welter, an 18-year member of the Ojibleau chapter in Wisconsin, current NLC secretary, and executive-committee member on the Board of Trustees. "A dramatic reaction."

In response, Welter and others spent months shaping a dispute policy that the grassroots, TU National and the Board could agree to, and which the trustees formally accepted in May, 2006. The policy established a Stream Access Working Group, from which chapters or state councils would need to ask permission before participating in access issues, in order to allow TU to screen which fights it entered. The five-member panel was seated last September.

But well before then, Montana TU had already entered two access frays. In 2004 Montana TU received permission from Gauvin to file an amicus brief pertaining to streambed-protection regulations in a suit, which included an access component, against property owners in the Bitterroot Valley. Meanwhile, in the Ruby Valley, several out-of-state landowners had taken to stringing electric wire to bridge abutments, dangerously obstructing what were long considered public rights of way. In 2005, Montana TU began seeking legislative clarification in the bridge-access dispute-a campaign Farling says was also conducted with Gauvin's knowledge.

Access is a big deal in Montana. Governor Brian Schweitzer recently told an audience of TU members in Butte that, in Montana, "trout today…are worth $200 million."

"The driver of Montana's economy is our right to access our streams and our public lands," Schweitzer said.

Farling goes him one further, arguing that Montana has the best wild-trout fishery in the country precisely because the public is deeply invested in conserving and protecting the rivers they are allowed to enjoy, making access part and parcel of conservation.

After the Working Group was established, Montana TU briefed its members on both the Bitterroot Valley and Ruby Valley issues. The Working Group agreed that the council was operating under permission from Gauvin in preparing the amicus brief, and unanimously approved Montana TU's ongoing role in the bridge-access bill.

What happened afterward back at national headquarters is less clear, in part because on two separate occasions Gauvin declined to answer questions from FR&R concerning many contested details surrounding the proposed ban. But we do know events came to a head at a closed-door meeting of the Board's Executive Committee he attended on February 1, 2007. Two other Executive Committee members also in attendance said that the Working Group's conclusions on the Montana TU situation were heard, and then Gauvin delivered comments of his own.

We were not able to determine what, exactly, Gauvin said to the Executive Committee, but he subsequently charged in an April 4 e-mail to FR&R that, for those who thought access involvement was strategically inappropriate, Montana TU's actions in the Bitterroot and Ruby stream-access issues "go beyond disturbing and suggest that the only acceptable policy is a flat prohibition."

One person present during the February 1 meeting was Working Group member Kirk Otey, a grassroots trustee on the national Executive Committee as well as the chairman of the NLC. Otey, a 20-plus-year member of the Rocky River chapter in North Carolina, says some misperceptions influenced Board members' conclusions about Montana TU's situation.

"Comments were made about how the Montana council had done this or that, and they were just simply not true," Otey says. "The Montana council had not stepped outside the bounds of the policy or prior approvals of their actions."

The next day, at the meeting of the full Board, Chairman of the Board John Maher, a banker from Sherman Oaks, California, abruptly announced his resignation. In a subsequent memo sent to Otey, but addressing all trustees, Maher said, "I resigned because I disagree with some members of the board concerning the appropriateness of TU's involvement-at any level of the organization-in disputes over public rights to stream access… I believe that TU is not the appropriate vehicle for either promoting or defending public access in disputes with landowners." He also offered his opinion that TU could not pull off a $120-$150 million capital campaign unless the organization eschewed "entanglements over such collateral issues as stream access."

Teufel became acting chairman, and proposed the ban 35 days later.

Gauvin is not wrong: His perspective has found support because stream access is not explicitly mentioned in TU's mission statement, which simply directs the organization "to conserve, protect and restore North America's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds." A significant percentage of trustees and TU members wish to adhere to the letter of that statement.

Access, says Teufel, a Little Lehigh chapter member in Pennsylvania for over 20 years, has "never come up in any of the three [TU] strategic plans I was a part of. In doing those plans, we got a great deal of grassroots input…[Access] was not identified by our membership as being something that TU ought to do."

After allowing the Working Group policy to be used only once, Gauvin pronounced it "flawed beyond repair" in a lengthy March 14 memo to the NLC arguing in support of Teufel's proposal. Asked by FR&R whether stream access was an issue in which the Board could simply override the wishes of the grassroots, Gauvin replied, "The Board has override power on the membership on just about anything."

TU members opposed to the ban point out that the organization works as well as it does because it recruits passionate anglers and directs their energy into conservation. Greg Dietl summed up the sentiments of his Wisconsin members in an e-mail: "While it's our mission to preserve…coldwater resources, if I can't fish because more and more access is being privatized, then to hell with it."

Several grassroots leaders have also said they felt manipulated by the suddenness of Teufel's proposal and the accelerated timetable imposed on responding to it. "Was somebody trying to take advantage of a turn of events to try to advance something they couldn't get passed the last time we discussed the policy?" asks Duke Welter, who spent, by his estimation, at least 200 hours consulting TU members, trustees and staff to craft the 2006 Working Group policy. "A person could read that into the situation."

In any case, a backlash quickly crystallized in the wake of the ban proposal. In response, on March 27, Teufel graciously withdrew his proposal in favor of one that would establish yet another committee to advise the trustees in preparation for their annual meeting in September, where they will once again discuss policy options for minimizing participation in access disputes. This second proposal also directed the Board to develop and fund a pilot program to promote voluntary stream access. It passed overwhelmingly that day.

Communication is what everybody talks about when people fail to listen to each other.

"We need a more expeditious method for the grassroots-chapters and state councils-to have a direct discussion with the Board of Trustees, because all this stuff is done by surrogates," says Farling. "I've never had the opportunity to go and visit with the Board of Trustees about any of this. They're hearing from surrogates who aren't even from Montana-Charles [Gauvin], other trustees. But there are some people who think there ought to be distance between the trustees and the grassroots. It's just unfortunate."

"We have to communicate better," agrees NLC chairman Otey. "And we have to be open about the fact when we screw up."

One common-sense solution might be to actually ask TU members where they stand on stream access. Although the organization knows a great deal about its members' fishing preferences and annual incomes, the staff has never openly surveyed the membership's feelings about access disputes. Polling could help gauge where a balance-point might lie.

A couple of simple questions can go a long way toward defusing a family feud-just ask around.

Trout Unlimited Fast Facts

Mission: Trout Unlimited's mission is to conserve, protect and restore North America's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.

Membership: TU has 152,000 members in 450 chapters spread across 36 states.

Budget: $18.5 million operating budget with $15.5 million spent on conservation and chapter support.

Recent Projects: TU bought the mining leases on 4,900 acres along the Rocky Mountain Front, including land near Glacier National Park. In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, TU worked to protect New Mexico's Valle Vidal from energy development through federal legislation.

Jeff Hull is a freelance writer who has written for FR&R since 1994. He has also published in the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Audubon, Outside, Men's Journal, Fortune, Outdoor Life, National Geographic Adventure, National Geographic Traveler, and many other magazines. His novel, Pale Morning Done, about fishing guides in Montana, was published by the Lyons Press in 2005, and his book of essays about fly-fishing, Streams of Consciousness, was published in early 2007, also by Lyons. He has lived in Montana for the past 18 years.