Voices from the River: For the kids

By Toner Mitchell

We in the conservation community are correct to plead the cause of saving the environment for future generations. It’s a fundamental survival instinct common to all life forms, even, as many have argued, to genes. A gold mine at the Bristol Bay headwaters means death, opposing it means life. A mine would not only destroy sport and food fishing while ruining one of the most physically beautiful places on earth; it would also break every link in a food chain that includes humans. Particularly future humans. 

I must admit to wondering why we consume so much oxygen reminding ourselves of this most basic truth. Protect those who can’t protect themselves, children are our future, and all that. Yes, of course, but it sometimes sounds so self-congratulatory, even hubristic. In a conservation context, it’s gotten to where I can’t think the word “children” without thinking “children’s children." In the back of my mind, I hear Chris Rock complaining about parents who brag about taking care of their kids, “You’re supposed to, you dumb %$#@$#&*!” 

Sorry for the attitude. I know we’re doing what needs to be done, and I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to play my own small role. I really do want to leave it for the kids. But then again, I don’t. With the exception of protected land — designated wilderness, roadless areas, extraction restrictions — the world in its current state is simply not the one I want my son to inherit.  

We need to go backwards from here or, shall I say “in a different direction," since backwards implies the return of polio epidemics, sooty urban air, and a flat-earth world view, which, embarrassingly, have too many advocates already. Yes, we need to protect naturally functioning places, but that’s not enough.  

We need to restore places that are not functioning naturally, reintroduce healthy fire to forests, forests to beavers, beavers to streams, and streams to their abandoned floodplains. But where young people are concerned, it’s also not enough to just restore things. Our children must see us doing it.  

There are several great reasons for doing this, but I always come back to the need to teach young people that what we have now is not a desired baseline condition, but far below it. If our current younger generations view today as their baseline — imperiled cutthroat, steelhead and salmon populations, for example — their own kids might have to accept hatchery or non-native replacements as theirs. Down the road, my most pessimistic self imagines the word “fishing” being defined as a cool video game and “a recreational pursuit once practiced by (see nerds).  

I love seeing conservation groups engaging youth, kids certainly, but also young adults. TU’s Stream Explorers and Trout in the Classroom programs are life changers, and I’m proud to work for an organization that recognizes the need for future leaders with its Five Rivers program for college students. The Quivira Coalition, a New Mexico-based group I’ve had the pleasure of working with, invests in young farmer mentoring in recognition of the fact that farmers and ranchers are aging out of the profession, working lands are critical to land stewardship in general, and the inescapable fact that we will always need to eat. 

Remember also that we’re not just going to die when our juniors become leaders. We’re still going to be here, hopefully for long enough to become pains in their butts on fishing trips. I’m reminded that I guided my father before my son was even born. Like my dad, I don’t plan on just fading away. I’m going to need a driver, someone to hike with me and tie my knots. I’m going to need a strong person to wade me into riffles, call out my strikes, and catch me when I fall.  

Because as Chris Rock might say…

Toner Mitchell is Trout Unlimited's New Mexico's water and habitat coordinator. He lives and works in Santa Fe. 




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