Pierce Clegg, author of Somewhere Down That Famous River, poses with his books outside the Smithers Public Library following a presentation Sept. 21. Roy Corbett photo

Author warns Babine watershed is in trouble

New Pierce Clegg book is a fishing memoir and cautionary tale

Author, conservationist, and retired fishing-guide Pierce Clegg gave a presentation at the Smithers Public Library on his most recent book, Somewhere Down That Famous River: A Babine Memoir, on September 21.

“The Babine is considered by many to be the best steelhead river in the world or, if not, one of the top ones,” Clegg said.

Clegg grew up in the San Fransisco Bay Area. His father taught him to fish in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He arrived with his first wife Debby in the Bulkley Valley in 1986, buying Babine Norlakes Trout Lodge and Steelhead Camp from Ejnar and Joy Madsen the same year.

Clegg later divorced and was remarried to Anita, who was born in Prince Rupert and raised in Quick.

He has since sold the camp to Billy Labonte and Carrie Collingwood.

In the late 1980s, Clegg worked with attorney Richard Overstall and the Silver Hilton Steelhead Lodge to establish the Babine River Foundation, a nonprofit organization representing the three steelhead lodges on the Babine River. Its purpose was protecting the Babine watershed through funding research, scientific studies, and public advocacy.

This foundation, along with the provincial government, later funded the Babine Watershed Monitoring Trust.

“The trust was created to keep an arm’s length from the foundation so that the foundation could not influence the work of the trust,” said Clegg. “This lent credibility to the work of the trust.”

The proceeds of Clegg’s first book, Babine, went to the trust, as well as some independent contributions from steelhead tourism guests of the Babine and elsewhere.

“They would then hire consultants to do various stewardship work in support of the whole ecosystem,” Clegg said. “Basically the idea being ‘Let’s protect our values.’ What are the values that make the river great? Let’s try and look after them. It’s a great credit to my guests that all the guests on the Babine River, that they gave extra money for stewardship. Bottom line, they wanted to catch fish and have fun.”

Clegg describes his book as “a memoir, with a bit of stewardship perspective and a little history,” intending it to be positive reflection of his time on the river. However, years spent fighting to protect the Babine have left him disillusioned about the future of the watershed.

“What I try to touch on here is: what is the value of old growth forests, clean, healthy water, and ecosystems that actually function. What is the value of that?’ Because we don’t manage for those things. It’s pretty obvious when you go through lots of land-use planning meetings. You’re out in the wilderness and you learn what makes it tick. And then you look at what we do to it and what our public policy is. ‘Forests forever’ or whatever the little buzzwords are that makes the public think that it’s fine out there, only in reality it’s not fine. We’re not really doing anything to change it either, by the way.

“Do you think steelhead are going to be exempt from closures in the future? Probably not. Probably closure is going to be a more and more used management tool because, guess what, we’re not employing any other tools,” said Clegg. “Are they doing anything to address the issues? No. So what they are going to do is take your opportunity away, both fishing and hunting. Then we are going to have a beautiful, low-water stream that’s too hot flowing through beautiful mountains and hoping that everybody on their way to Alaska might spend an extra night here. That’s what we’re going to become. We’re not going to become any kind of Steelhead paradise-Mecca.”

Clegg warns that the cumulative effect resulting from issues of gillnet bycatching, fish-stock overharvesting, sediment wash resulting from the overlogging near spawning beds, acid rock drainage from unsafe mining practices, and fish farm-borne pathogens like piscine reovirus presents a threat to the future of steelhead in the Babine.

“That’s kind of the sad part,” he said. “It’s not completely over, but we’re in trouble. For the Skeena watershed our tourism fisheries are extremely important, as well as the cultural fisheries for indigenous cultures is huge, as we all know. To lose our salmon and steelhead is [a] hard pill to swallow, but that’s what’s happening. And a lot of people aren’t talking about it much.

“Look at the Thompson River. We don’t think on the Skeena that we’re next? Look at the Columbia right now. I’ll tell you what, we’re next. It’s happening, and it’s sad. Part of this book is to say ‘what was it like back then?’ It was amazing. It still has some of those amazing qualities now, but not like when I first got here. It’s like night and day.

“Are we going to throttle back at all? No. Nobody’s even talking about it. Our salmon run is in trouble. What can we do? Can we increase our buffers on spawning tributaries? Can we really look after their gravel? Can we make sure that the water temperature in our spawning are not getting too high? No discussion whatsoever about this stuff. This is why I’m a little pessimistic about the future, and I try and point that out in the book, then move to the fun and the friendships and the fishing. Because it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about saving ourselves.

“You get a group of people that are real concerned. You make a plan. ‘Yay!’ You feel great about the plan. But then you realize that there are no implementation funds. So it’s just a useless document, but it collects angst, negative energies, protests, and radical fringe. It just gets everybody in a room and keeps them under control. Then they come out with this document and everybody signs it and thinks it’s wonderful. Ten years later, did it actually get carried out? No. They had no intention of it. All they’re doing is keeping the public angst under control. It’s kind of disturbing, but that’s my take on it.

“To leave it on a positive note, yeah, we were able to accomplish some positive things. So I shouldn’t say it was all for naught. We can make some positives. Maybe we can delay the inevitable. But don’t kid yourselves into thinking that we are looking after our ecosystems, wild rivers and watersheds. If we don’t address those things in a meaningful and truly scientific way, then we are, well, in my book I call it ‘the emperor with no clothes.’ We convince ourselves that we have this fine wardrobe of sustainability when in reality we don’t.”

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