Met with enthusiasm (if not always sold out crowds)!
Wet weather returned in force to Northern California this winter after a period of historic drought. This swing has posed significant challenges for communities in the Upper Feather River Basin and elsewhere in the state as rain and snow stressed infrastructure, flooded rivers, and hindered travel.
Nonetheless, a few stalwart attendees brought their curiosity and enthusiasm to community meetings I hosted throughout the Upper Feather River Basin in Chester, Quincy, Greenville and Sierraville over the past few months. These meetings were meant to engage communities in the Basin on the development, progress and goals of the Upper Feather River Basin-Wide Native Fish Assessment and Improvement Strategy, and to solicit comments and responses. Additional presentations were given to interested groups in larger nearby communities such as Chico.
While attendance numbers sometimes ran low on account of weather and other factors, enthusiasm ran high. Community response was generally positive, as members expressed how impressed they were with the scope and motives of the project. Additionally, each meeting provided at least a little unique insight about the respective corners of the Basin in which they occurred.
While the response was positive, I also learned a practical lesson about the perceptions and assumptions some members of the public have about the work of my host organization, Trout Unlimited (TU). TU deals with conserving cold-water fishes and their habitat, with particular emphasis on native species. In an area like the Upper Feather River where so many people’s lives and livelihoods depend on healthy fisheries and watersheds, there is ample room for tensions to arise for an organization like this.
Some contentious topics surrounding the fisheries of the Upper Feather River Basin include the shift to stocking predominantly native trout only in some locations, stocking fewer numbers of trout throughout, recent growth in populations of river otters here in the Basin and across California, reservoir level management, and a few controversial engineering solutions to problems of water quality, among other things. Because fisheries support a substantial portion of the local economy, any possible negative influence on fishery quality is often scrutinized under the public eye.
While each of the issues above can certainly have some bearing on fishery quality, many of them lie outside the immediate scope of work for a Trout Unlimited Chapter. For example, Department of Fish & Wildlife manages the stocking of fish according to their own analyses of ecologic dynamics and public demand. Similarly, reservoir operators, public and private, conduct their own analyses (with State and Federal commissioners) that dictate their operations and reservoir management.
However, when and where there is significant threat to a fishery, Trout Unlimited is one of the leading advocates for affecting changes that protect that fishery. The question is: when and where should that advocacy take place?The mission of the Upper Feather River Basin-Wide Fish Assessment and Improvement Strategy is to develop preemptive and proactive answers to those questions.
Although I feel the meetings did, and the Assessment will, help address some of the concerns raised (that fall under TU’s purview), these meetings have also underscored the need for conservation organizations and the scientific community to consistently and transparently engage with the public.
Engaging the public not only allows for the presentation of study results but, with respect to something like restoration planning, also provides the public with an opportunity to comment on process and voice their concerns and priorities. Additionally, when the public has a good understanding and good impression of the work of the organization they are more willing to provide support to its activities.
So, contentious topics aside, I felt that at each of the meetings the attendees walked away not only impressed with project but also with substantial clarity of understanding surrounding its goals: to assess and prioritize areas for the enhancement of native rainbow trout and their habitat in the Upper Feather River Basin.
To further connect with Feather River Trout Unlimited and stay posted on the chapter’s work, events and activities check out their NEW WEBSITE: http://frtu.org/. Feel free to follow on the new Facebook page as well: https://www.facebook.com/FeatherRiverTU/!