CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Being a seventh-generation native West Virginian, I have a strong connection to the land and the sporting traditions handed down through generations. I caught my first trout on the Cranberry River and have some of my greatest memories on the Williams and Elk rivers, fishing with family and friends.Thousands of West Virginians, as well as out-of-state tourists, share these experiences with me. No matter whom I fished with, upon arriving at the river, the conversation quickly changed with the atmosphere, along with a certain quickening of the heartbeat. Experiencing our mountain rivers changes a person, and draws us back time after time. The rivers became my playground, and like many of us anglers, I cherish my playground.Trout Unlimited has more than 1,600 members in the Mountain State, and many of us were introduced to trout fishing on the Cranberry or Williams rivers, perhaps even on native brook trout streams such as Tea Creek or Dogway Fork. The area considered for the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument status is undeniably special, and it means so much to all West Virginia anglers.Over the past year, West Virginia Trout Unlimited has joined a broad and diverse coalition of organizations and individuals to advocate for the Birthplace of Rivers National Monument initiative. Why? For our organization, it's simple: Our mission is to "conserve, protect and restore our coldwater fisheries." Monument designation allows us to do just that for what many consider to be West Virginia's best trout angling resource.
The Monongahela National Forest contains almost 90 percent of West Virginia's remaining native brook trout streams, but most National Forest lands are not permanently protected, administered only by temporary guidelines which can change at the hands of a future federal administration. The potential Birthplace of Rivers National Monument contains vast headwaters, which were once decimated by unbridled commercial logging activity. The areas have since recovered and, thanks to collaborative efforts among Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Forest Service and the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, many streams now support healthy populations of wild and native trout. National Monument status would give this special area lasting statutory protection, ensuring that this high-quality trout fishing experience will always be available for enjoyment by anglers from West Virginia and from around the globe.When West Virginia Trout Unlimited first considered National Monument status for the area, we did not simply support the designation without first considering its consequences. Instead, we looked at the power National Monument status lends to conservation, protection and restoration of important trout streams -- the very activities that define our mission -- and we required a certain flexibility to protect access and important management practices. We made sure DNR officials would have access for activities such as trout stocking and stream liming. We also required the monument continue to be managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Since then, local Trout Unlimited representatives have met with administrative and congressional officials to gain necessary assurances that a monument could indeed be crafted in a way that better protects world-class trout waters, while allowing access to manage for and enjoy our outdoor traditions.In recent years, extreme members of Congress have taken a hard-line stance against citizen-driven conservation initiatives, instead making repeated attempts to erode protections currently offered to backcountry areas and the resources that national forests provide for the American people. In West Virginia, our sporting connections to the Monongahela National Forest are too important, and the Birthplace of Rivers area is too significant, to leave at the hands of future administrations.A truly diverse coalition of organizations with varying missions and goals has come together to define a monument designation that serves as a true honor to the best of West Virginia and protects access to the activities we enjoy today. The brook trout is our official state fish, and our most important natural resource is clean water, where these mascots of our mountain waters thrive.The Birthplace of Rivers National Monument not only would protect a stronghold of the brook trout, but also would celebrate and honor this incredible resource well into the future. As the state celebrates 150 years, our elected leaders need to pay attention to this unique opportunity, helping preserve our sporting heritage, creating economic benefits for local communities and honoring the landscape, history and culture of wild and wonderful West Virginia.Smith, of Spencer, is chairman of the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited.