Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Conservation writer keeps the faith

By Shawn Perich

Ted Williams is thinking about becoming a fishing guide. But he isn’t going into it for the money.

“Guiding is about the only thing that pays worse than conservation writing,” he says.

Williams, who lives in Massachusetts, ought to know. He is among the nation’s top writers on conservation and the environment; a tough-nosed scribe who isn’t afraid to tell the truth and name names. As such, his work ought to be in high demand. Unfortunately, there isn’t just demand for environmental journalism these days.

“The nation’s big environmental fervor has subsided,” he says.

The result is editors are less interested in hard-hitting stories about conservation issues. Williams recently queried a magazine about a potential story and was rejected. The editor responded that the magazine didn’t want to know who was right or who was wrong. Instead they wanted “nuanced” pieces.

“Few editors want the real stuff anymore,” Williams says.

This is especially true of larger, national magazines, including outdoor publications. Williams says most magazines now require writers to sign contracts that place all responsibilities with the writer. This means if a magazine is sued for publishing a story, the legal expenses associated with the suit are paid by the writer. “That’s why so few magazines get good writing,” he says.

Williams carries special insurance and has been sued in the past. But magazines that require such contracts with their contributors are very unlikely to publish hard-hitting stories anyway. He has more luck getting published in mid-sized publications and has columns in Fly Rod and Reel magazine and High Country News. He writes as well for Audubon Magazine, where he once had a monthly column. That gig was cut short by a change in editorial policy that all content must be about birds. Much of his work is about other aspects of fish and wildlife conservation.

While he believes print magazines are “wasting away,” he is hopeful they will be replaced by online publications. One conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy, has moved its former print magazine online. He also suggests readers looking for good environmental coverage can go to a website called Yale Environment 360.

None of the above mentioned publications, save Fly Rod and Reel, are widely read by hunters and anglers. Even though they are directly affected by a host of conservation issues, most publications serving hunters and anglers don’t devote much, if any, coverage to conservation topics. A notable exception, Williams notes, is Outdoor News and Outdoor America.

“If you want to say anything about fish and wildlife, you have to write for small publications,” he says.

Even then, many hunters and anglers either don’t understand or don’t want to hear about conservation and environmental issues. Some don’t understand the connection between healthy habitat and game abundance. Some view hatchery fish stocking as an acceptable substitute to sustainably managing wild fisheries. Still, others view any criticism of hunting or fishing activities as a threat to the existence of hunting and fishing.

Sometimes, sportsmen take aim and shoot themselves in the foot. Williams points to North Dakota, where last fall energy and agriculture interests convinced voters that a plan to devote a small percentage of the state’s oil and gas revenues to land and water conservation was not in their best interests. Eighty percent of North Dakota voters opposed the measure. This happened in spite of the fact that the state suffered massive habitat loss, due to rapid expansion of row-cropping and oil drilling during the past decade. It is not coincidence that North Dakota hunters are looking forward to the poorest deer and pheasant hunting they’ve experienced in decades.

American demographics also confound conservation reporting. Williams says about 50 percent of the American public deny evolution exists. He says that with people of that mindset, there is no hope for preserving biodiversity or for having a conversation about conservation.

“When half of the population believes in creationism, how do you reach people with a message about wildlife conservation?’ he asks.

On the other end of the spectrum are neo-conservation biologists who don’t believe nonnative species are bad when they are introduced into ecosystems where they did not previously exist. Williams says some nonnatives, such as ring-necked pheasants, are fine, while many others, such as Eurasian watermilfoil, are very disruptive in a new environment. He is concerned that an organization called Wilderness Watch has opposed the use of the fish poison rotenone to eliminate nonnative trout populations in some western streams in order to restore native species. Native trout restoration is sometimes opposed by anglers, too.

Then again, convincing sportsmen to do the right thing for conservation isn’t always easy. Williams’ son is a wildlife biologist in Connecticut, where, in a suburban environment with very few predators, deer populations can exceed 100 per square mile. His son has been infected with Lyme disease six times. Severe over-browsing by deer has eliminated shrub habitat needed by songbirds and other species. Attempts to control deer numbers, including hunting and the use of contraceptives, haven’t been effective. What Williams finds frustrating is that hunters are often among those who oppose deer population control. He worries this has implications for future wildlife management.

“How do you reach young sportsman who think it is normal to see deer 400 yards away in a forest that has been stripped of its undergrowth?” he asks. “The deer are wiping out a lot of other wildlife, as well as their own habitat.”

An avid angler, Williams has watched the rise and fall of one of his favorite saltwater fish, the striped bass. During the 1970s, there was no commercial or recreational limit on stripers, which were severely overfished. So few remained, that in the 1980s the species was protected with what almost amounted to no-kill fishing regulations. Stripers made an extraordinary recovery during the 1990s—only to be overfished again. This year, the limit has been reduced to one fish, but he worries that the population is so low it may be difficult for the species to recover its abundance.

A cynic may say it is human nature to squander our fish and wildlife resources and then, on the brink of disaster, seek ways to conserve them. For writers like Williams, this ought to mean job security—provided he can find places to sell his stories. Still, it takes a certain kind of writer to report on one conservation crisis after another without losing faith. Williams is that kind of writer.

“If we go down, it will be with all guns blazing,” he says.

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