Q&A with Ted Williams

Ted Williams is one of America’s most respected, renowned and—by those who would despoil our best wild places—feared conservation writers. For more than three decades, he has written tough, passionately informed pieces on a wide range of wildlife conservation issues. He writes the popular “Earth Almanac” and “Incite” columns for Audubon magazine, and is conservation editor for Fly Rod and Reel magazine. Williams, an avid angler, hunter and naturalist, has received numerous awards for his writing, including the Conservation Achievement Award from the National Wildlife Federation and the Aldo Leopold Award for “outstanding contributions to fisheries and land ecology” from the Federation of Fly Fishers. Trout magazine recently caught up with him.

What sparked your interest in nature and, especially, in conservation writing?

Fishing and hunting. And writing was one of the few things I was good at.

You are fiercely independent in tackling controversial issues. You say what you think, even if it ruffles feathers, and don’t care about being attacked—as you often are. The title of your Audubon column is “Incite.” Do you see that as your role?

People who don’t like to be written about invariably seize upon that title as evidence of gratuitous pot stirring. But my late friend and editor Les Line (who conceived the column’s title in 1988, changing it from “Ecopinion,” which I did not like) saw the column’s role strictly as inciting our readers to thought and action. Since Les left in 1991 I’ve been blessed with editors who agree.

What are the greatest threats today to our wild places and wildlife?

People. There are just too many of us. But we can dramatically reduce our impact if we learn to value, protect and restore native ecosystems. Unfortunately, most Americans are ecologically illiterate. We still play musical chairs with species; and eliminating aliens such as feral cats, feral horses and mongrel trout is still anathema to the majority.

You’re a sportsman as well as a birder and conservationist – does that make it hard for people to pigeonhole you?

Indeed it does. For example, when I write about the toxic threat of lead bullets and sinkers to wildlife and humans, NRA types fall all over themselves trying to paint me as an “anti.” But I’ve probably left more bootprints in upland bird cover than any of them. The only reason I don’t do more bird hunting now is because false albacore show up in Long Island Sound each fall, and that’s all I want to chase.

You write with strong convictions and closely argued data and facts. Have you changed your mind about any issues over the years?

For sure. There are several articles I got wrong. The one that jumps first to my mind is “The Final Ferret Fiasco” about black-footed ferrets, shortly after they were rediscovered by a Wyoming researcher named Shep. (Shep was a dog who brought a dead one home in his mouth.) When the ferret population contracted canine distemper the state and feds wanted to evacuate them from the wild and breed them in captivity. I criticized that decision. If they had listened to me black-footed ferrets would be extinct.

Who are your conservation heroes?

Aldo Leopold, Teddy Roosevelt, George Bird Grinnell, Roderick Haig-Brown, Michael Frome, Nat Reed, Donna Shaver, Bruce Babbitt, Mollie Beatty, Michael Dombeck, Jack Ward Thomas, Brad Burns, John Cole, John Varley, Kurt Beardslee, Jim Range, Michael Bean, Jim Nelson, Walter Fondren, Ken Hinman, Phil Pister, Bill Bakke, Bob Behnke. And lots of others that I’ll doubtless think of later.

How have fishing and hunting changed in the last 30 years—what trends do you see, good or bad?

The best trend is catch-and-release. We can’t thank ourselves. We followed the lead of the tournament bass guys and the TV bass shows (that I’m unable to watch without the volume turned off.) I guess the worst trend would be canned hunts—where people short on time, skill and patience pay big money to shoot semi-tame animals in enclosures. We had it 30 years ago, but nothing approaching what we have today. Real hunting is to canned hunting what holy matrimony is to prostitution.

Some of the biggest successes of the environmental movement are decades old—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, etc. Is the conservation movement losing steam? Do Americans still care about wild places?

The conservation movement is not losing steam, but because we have become effective and therefore a threat to exploiters there’s been a major backlash. At first they merely ignored us. For sure Americans care about wild places, and their commitment to protecting them is increasing.

What are the greatest conservation failures of the last two decades?

The greatest failure without question would be the election of George W. Bush followed closely by the emasculation (at the hands of clueless environmentalists and wise-use fanatics) of The Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA) that would annually have allocated $2.8 billion in federal offshore oil-and-gas royalties to conservation. There would have been $350 million available for fish and wildlife restoration, $900 million for habitat acquisition, $1 billion to mitigate coastal impacts from oil-related development, $125 million for urban parks and recreation, $100 million for historic preservation, $200 million for restoration of Indian and public lands, $150 million for conservation easements and the recovery of vanishing species and $200 million for payments to local communities to replace lost tax revenue after federal land purchases.

How much should we worry about genetically modified salmon?

I don’t know the answer. But I worry more about the public mindset that permits and encourages such grotesque insults to nature. We’re infatuated with genetic meddling and the more we do it the more demand we create. Equally grotesque are Frankenstein fish created by mixing species or adding chromosomes by shocking eggs with chemicals. West Virginia is the caretaker for a national treasure—a native brook trout resource second only to Maine’s. And yet the logo of the state DNR features a “golden trout” — not the lovely cutthroat of the high Sierras but a genetic freak lacking pigmentation and concocted in hatcheries from rainbow trout, alien to the state. They’re so popular that Pennsylvania asked for some and now raises them as “palomino trout.”

Size up the state of hook-and-bullet outdoor journalism.

The great Canadian fishing writer Roderick Haig-Brown’s critique of the hook-and-bullet press rings as true today as it did when he wrote it a generation ago: “Its faults are timidity and conformity. It dare not shock or extend its readers, it must not frighten them with abstract or deeply considered ideas, it must somehow catch and hold even the dullest mentality—or risk a reduction of the advertising rates. With so much at stake [articles] are mainly staff written or else edited into inoffensive inanity.” When young writers ask me where to publish conservation pieces my first question is: Are we talking real conservation or make-believe? If the former, find a small hook-and-bullet magazine. Almost all the big ones want make-believe. I should note that there are a few exceptions. Field & Stream, for example, deserves credit for publishing Hal Herring and Bob Marshall. I was hired and fired by a major hook-and-bullet magazine all in the same day. I don’t think any other writer has ever accomplished that. In the morning the editor called to ask if I’d like to sign on as conservation editor. I said sure, but that I’d need a guarantee that if I got sued for libel and had all my facts right, the magazine’s attorneys would defend me. The editor said: “No problem.” But that night he called back to tell me that the publisher had declared: “You mean Williams’ stuff might be controversial? No way!”

You’ve criticized the attitude among some anglers that “a trout is a trout.” How are native trout special?

Native trout are special in the way that all wild creatures are special—not because they’re beautiful (although they are), not because they’re fun to catch (although they are), not because they’re good to eat (although they are), not because they “are” anything, but simply because they are. What alarms and depresses me is not just that we’re losing native trout but that much of the angling public doesn’t care. To save mongrel and alien trout chemophobes assisted by “trout-are-trout” anglers successfully block rotenone reclamation projects throughout the West. And “trout-are-trout” anglers pressure states to stock “cutbows” because, as one told Idaho fisheries managers, “Yellowstone cutts fight like slugs.”

You’ve been an outspoken voice against wild horses—how do they impact fish habitat?

Well, first they’re not “wild horses.” They’re feral horses. The vast majority are recently escaped or discarded livestock. Horses are the only ungulates in North America with meshing upper and lower teeth and solid hooves, so they take a terrible toll on vegetation that did not co-evolve with them. At least cows can be moved to new range and taken in in winter, but feral horses are out there all year, pounding fish and wildlife habitat. Yet the American public and Congress have forced the BLM to keep this alien species on the land or on perpetual welfare in corrals at an annual cost of $75 million. By contrast our federal government, via its endangered species program, spends an average of $86,673 a year on each of 2,071 listed species believed to face imminent or possible extinction.

It has to be frustrating and depressing at times being a conservation writer in this age of widespread habitat damage and loss—what keeps you going?

What keeps me going is that I’m old enough to remember how far we’ve come. When I went to work for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife there was no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act, no Endangered Species Act, no Environmental Protection Agency. I recall arguing with a fisheries biologist about DDT. “It will never be banned,” he proclaimed. Two years later when it was banned he said, “The ban won’t make a difference.” Since the 1920s my family has had a camp on a New Hampshire Lake. Eagles and loons had never been seen there by any of my relatives until about 20 years ago. Last week two bald eagles spent most of the morning in one of our big pines, and we heard loons all night.

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