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Tomorrow’s Conservationists: The TU Teen Summit

For conservation minded anglers, one of the highest priorities involves ensuring a sustainable resource. Clean water, protected habitats, and reproducing trout populations are realities that individuals and groups strive to see on their home waters. As vital as issues like these are, the fact of the matter is that there is another priority that is inseparable from any environmental project.

Preserving trout and their habitats for future generations doesn’t just mean ensuring that kids and grandkids have a place to fish, but ultimately handing off the responsibility. It isn’t enough to hand off an ecosystem and fishery that is in “good shape.” Part of the process involves communicating the ethics and information that conservation requires.

Trout Unlimited has been the leading voice in cold water conservation for over 50 years. For half of a century, men and women have devoted themselves to trout, salmon, and their respective ecosystems. But no matter how hard volunteers work or how much a donor gives, each individual life is limited by its span. That is why an organization like TU is prioritizing passing the torch along with the traditional conservation work.

Nearly 25 years ago in Pennsylvania, the very first youth conservation camp was started by Enoch “Inky” Moore and Dr. Jack Beck. The goal was to attract young men and women that were interested in fly fishing as well as the science behind protecting and restoring the resource to an intensive week of opportunity. College-level classes, field work, and ample chances for fly fishing were on the schedule.

Immediately, TU became involved in the camp. Over the past quarter century 23 other camps have been started across the country based upon that model. Consequently, hundreds of teenagers have been exposed to various aspects of what holistic cold water stewardship entails. This loosely affiliated network of camps was accomplishing the goal of educating and empowering teenagers.

But what was the next step for this growing group of conservationists?

In 2012, TU took the next step in passing the torch. Under the overarching guidance of the Headwaters  Youth Program, a comprehensive initiative that seeks to engage children, teens, and college students in the mission of TU, the Trout Unlimited Teen Summit was founded. The plan was to assemble the best and brightest of the camp attendees and continue to groom them for a life of mindfulness and action for cold water resources.

Franklin Tate, director for the Headwaters Youth Program, has been instrumental in the Summit since its inception. He began working at TU right when camps were popping up all over the United States. “We were having all of these 13 and 14-year olds with these camp experiences and TU memberships disappear,” Tait said. “We knew we needed something. We needed a ‘supercamp,’ a national youth leadership event.” The hope was for the teens that were really impacted to step up and partner with TU. Not only would they continue down the path of conservation; they would be active in influencing and recruiting their peers.

That first camp in 2012, on Spring Creek in Pennsylvania, showed immediate signs that TU was on the right track. Tate explained the instantaneous benefits: “They loved meeting people from other parts of the country and feeling solidarity as teens that fly fish and teens that care about the fish. It isn’t like there is necessarily support in most high schools for this kind of student.”

Again, most of these students are coming through the TU “Stream of Engagement.” There is always the chance that a child will have a parent or grandparent that fly fishes, but that is only a small percent of the population. The first chance that TU has at connecting with kids is through programs like Trout in the Classroom or Adopt a Stream. From there, the young people can get involved with their local TU chapter and then apply to one of the camps across the country. The Summit is the next step. And after that, the very successful Costa 5 Rivers program is available at more and more colleges.

But throughout that entire timeline, boys and girls that get involved with the Summit are instrumental. They volunteer with Trout in the Classroom, they participate in chapter events, they run 5 Rivers clubs, and they give input to TU regarding reaching more teens. From Tate’s perspective, this is precisely the point of a platform like the Summit. “We are looking for a passion for fly fishing and a passion for conservation, but we’re also looking for leaders. A goal is for the camp alumni to become Youth Leadership Council members. They’ll help Headwaters staff figure out social media, compile resources for getting teens into fly fishing, and even inform their entire chapter of their experience at the summit.”

Sustainability necessitates planning for the future. TU is actively doing just that by not only educating young people, but taking the initiative to cycle teenagers back into that planning process. Cleaning a stream, tying flies, or taking people fishing doesn’t require a college education or 20 years on the water. For that reason, during the week of the summit, the staff and volunteers enlist the younger participants to shape the events and activities. They empower them to make decisions, to brainstorm, and to plan their next steps. Passion is passion, and bridling that energy in a guided manner at an early age is wise.

This year the camp will be held at Camp Watanopa on Georgetown Lake, Montana. “We’re looking for kids that want to learn and contribute,” Tate said of their selection process. “The state camps generally act as a feeder for two-thirds or three-quarters of our students, but then we try to bring back around a third of the group the next year.” Once it concludes, that means that there will be nearly 150 teens and young adults that have participated in some serious leadership training over the past five Summits. 150 people ready and equipped to give back.

Today, clean water and healthy trout populations are largely dependent upon positive human intervention. It is a safe assumption to say that this is going to be the status quo for the foreseeable future. As those first generations of contemporary conservationists become unable to stand up and speak for the resource, the torch must be passed. Thankfully a clearly structured program like the Stream of Engagement has that objective in its sights. A cornerstone event like the TU Teen Summit is developing a core group of leaders that will carry that torch, protecting fisheries and drawing people into the fold.

Additional information for this year’s TU Teen Summit, held June 19-23, can be found here.

Help teens be conservation leaders by visiting the TU Teen Summit GoFundMe page here.

Learn more about the Trout Unlimited Headwaters Youth Program here.

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