Playing the Advocacy Long Game

As I write this, I’m still celebrating the recent Bristol Bay decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the Pebble Mine permit. The Pebble saga is a long one, and it serves as a reminder about the importance of playing the “long game” when it comes to our advocacy efforts.


The mineral deposit was discovered in 1987 and after further studies, mineral rights were secured in 2001. For the next decade, a patchwork coalition of conservationists developed to protect Bristol Bay’s waterways, the salmon fishery, and its local economies.


I had the opportunity to participate in a Bristol Bay fly-in to Washington D.C. in 2012. Anglers, guides, lodge owners, and local tribal leaders came from all across the country to meet with our respective legislators. We were all there to deliver a clear and concise message – this was the wrong mine in the wrong place.


2014 brought good news – a three year study of the area by the EPA appeared to block approval of the mine. Their final report found that “mining in the headwaters of these river systems could cause harm to the valuable fishery in Bristol Bay”. Cue the premature celebration.


Of course, we now know how the next chapter unfolds. In 2017, a new Administration was interested in re-examining the possibility of what would be North America’s largest open pit mine. The EPA was ordered to throw out their previous report, and a new mining permit application was being considered.


The latest rejection by the Army Corps feels more permanent, but it’s likely to be appealed. And without permanent protections, the threat will continue to loom over Bristol Bay. The job is not done, and thankfully, we’re in this fight for the long haul.


We can learn some valuable lessons from the Bristol Bay experience and apply this knowledge to our own advocacy efforts right here in Wisconsin.


We know that economics and local economies matter. It’s hard to put a monetary value on cold, clean, fishable water, but we’re learning. We’ve done two studies on the economic impacts of trout angling in the Driftless Area, and recent studies by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Outdoor Industry Association are starting to shed light on the economic impact of outdoor recreation in our State.


Our outdoor recreation economy is thriving because Wisconsin has invested in public land and water access through the Knowles Nelson Stewardship program. But we could do more. 2020 has showed us just how important our public lands are, and in the upcoming budget session, it’s time to see a long term re-authorization of the Stewardship Program.


Outside of economics, Bristol Bay has taught us that stories matter. Legislators and policy makers need to hear our stories of time spent in Wisconsin’s woods and waters. As important as the facts and figures are, these personal stories have the most powerful impact.


The story of our restoration work needs to be told too. Every local TU Chapter has their “home waters”. We’re leaving these waters better than we found them thanks to the effort of our volunteers. In a typical year, Wisconsin TU members will volunteer over 50,000 hours – that’s dedication!

The DNR has requested a ten year re-authorization of Stewardship at $51 million per year (a slight increase over the current $33 million per year). We’ll know in a few weeks if the Governor’s budget honors that request. Then it will be on to the Legislative Joint Finance Committee.


In the coming months we’ll be looking to build relationships with these Legislators by getting them out on the water and touring some of our local restoration work so they can see the positive impacts of public fishing easements on the landscape.


Last fall we held successful site visits with Sen. Marklein (R-Spring Green) on Bear Creek in Sauk County and with Sen. Roth (R-Appleton) on the Pine River in nearby Waushara County. Both visits gave local chapter leaders an opportunity to engage with their legislators on some familiar stream banks.


We were joined at both visits by leaders from our partners at Gathering Waters, a non-profit representing Wisconsin’s Land Trusts. Gathering Waters has taken a lead role in advocating for the Stewardship program and we hope to build on these positive experiences this spring.


Let’s see if we can channel some of that Bristol Bay momentum and get Wisconsin’s iconic public lands initiative, the Knowles Nelson Stewardship program, a ten year re-authorization.


Do you have a story to tell? It’s never too late to start advocating on behalf of our waters.


Much Respect,

Mike Kuhr

State Council Chair