Boots on the ground: Jeff Wright

For this Boots on The Ground series, we head to North Carolina to meet with Jeff Wright and get involved in a culvert removal and improvement project. Jeff is Trout Unlimited’s Southern Appalachians Project Manager. Follow along to learn more about Jeff and some of the projects he’s working on.

Flylords: Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Jeff: I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis. Louis, Missouri. While we were close to the suburbs, we lived in a much more rural area. At one point, my family had about 200 acres and I spent a lot of time playing in the woods. As I grew up, I got to see the impacts of urbanization as many open spaces were converted into subdivisions and shopping malls. I think this connection to nature combined with seeing the tangible impacts of development really sparked my interest in conservation. After high school, I attended Truman State University in Kirksville, MO, earning a BS and MS in Biology with a focus on wildlife. My goals have always been to have a career in conservation, but the road there has taken some unexpected turns. My family moved to Northeast Tennessee in 2015 for my wife’s job and I was looking for a way to get involved with a conservation group and do some hands-on work. That’s how I got involved with Trout Unlimited. As the usual story goes, I volunteered for the local board and soon after became chapter president. This experience combined with my educational background and work in volunteer management helped me earn my staff position with the organization.

Flylords: Can you tell us why the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout is so special?

Jeff: The thing that stands out to me about the southern Appalachian Brook Trout is that they have been able to stay in the landscape despite the many challenges humanity has thrown their way. Native fish in the Southeast have lived through the ages of unsustainable logging, acid rain, and a barely regulated mining industry, and they’re still here. This is our connection to hundreds of thousands of years of brook trout populations that came and went without human involvement. I think this kind of connection with ecological history is very significant. I personally believe that we need to take action now to correct some of the impacts that society has had on these types of native species.

Flylords: What is the purpose of the Alarka Headwaters Project?

Jeff: The purpose of this project is to address one of the remaining issues for Brook Trout, connectivity. When any road crosses a stream, there must be some sort of crossing structure there. Traditional structures focused on handling water volume but did not address the ecological function of the stream. Many times, crossing structures such as corrugated metal pipes create a head cut and rise above the stream. Fish and other aquatic species cannot move through these passages and the population is essentially split in two.

At Alarka, we are replacing a double CMP switch with an open-ended bow. The open-ended arch is wide enough to extend beyond the stream banks and has a natural stream bottom running through it. Not only does this allow for better connectivity, but these crossings actually handle flood-level flows better and pass materials like fallen trees better. Also, this project should reduce the amount of sediment coming from the road and entering the stream.

Flylords: What challenges have you faced trying to restore this native habitat?

Jeff: Funding can be a big challenge. It takes a little money to get the job done and TU uses many different resources. For this project, we have support from the Dominion Energy Foundation, Little Tennessee Native Fish Conservation Partnership, Tennessee Valley Authority, Mainspring Conservation Trust, Wildlands Engineering, Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and North Carolina National Forests.

Our work also tends to be in hard to reach areas. This creates a lot of logistical issues that you might not have in places that are easier to get to.

Finally, there is no shortage of work to do. You need to be able to identify high priority projects in order to spend money in the best possible way.

Flylords: You’ve done work across the Southeast to protect this fish. How have you seen populations respond to the projects TU is working on?

Jeff: We don’t often get to see the tangible products of our work, but there is a lot of research out there that shows the benefits of sediment reconnection and reduction. It’s nice to see Brook Trout moving through a place they couldn’t before.

Flylords: What is the main purpose of TU’s work in the Southeast?

Jeff: To advance TU’s mission for native and wild trout in the region. This mission is bringing together diverse interests to care for and restore rivers and streams so our children can experience the joy of wild and native trout and salmon.

Flylords: How can people get involved in the projects you’re working on?

Jeff: Get involved with a local chapter. We try and work directly with the chapters that are interested in the areas where the projects take place. Chapters are good for letting their members know about upcoming opportunities and promoting the work the staff is doing. We couldn’t do many of our projects without these grassroots volunteers.

Thank you Jeff for sharing your work with us on an incredible fall day in the South! If you are interested in getting more involved CLICK HERE.

All photos by Dave Fason.

Boots on the ground: Jessica Strickland

Boots on the ground for a low, free-flowing snake river

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