Fifteen or twenty years ago, the bestowal of that title wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but today we speak of fish, and it has raised quite a few. For Ted Turner, of CNN fame, has been named Angler of the Year by the prestigious “Fly Rod & Reel” magazine, the “magazine for American fly-fishing.” Turner now owns more land than comprise some small nations, 1.7 million acres, mostly in the western United States. His husbandry of it has irked natives, thrilled environmentalists, and generally added to the controversy his name evokes.
When Turner purchased the 113,000 acre Flying D Ranch south of Bozeman, Montana, in 1989, he closed the several rights of way natives had used for years to travel across it, easements that also led some to Cherry Creek, a stream that flows through the place. This change in status quo led some natives to declare that their land was also closed to access “by Ted Turner.” A license plate sprung up declaring: “Not So Fonda Jane,” a reference to his then third wife, Jane Fonda.
Turner’s occasional pronouncements on Christendom, his donation of one billion dollars to the United Nations, an outfit as cherished in the West as drought, and his insistence on banishing cattle from his spreads and raising buffalo in their stead (better for the land and particularly for streams) were only partially offset by his generosity to conservation and environmental projects. (He helped preserve a Buffalo jump in Montana and has donated millions annually to conservation projects in connection with the 14 ranches he owns in New Mexico, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, and Nebraska.)
So when he backed a Montana Fish and Game Department plan to poison all the fish in Cherry Creek, and the mountain lake it flows from, Turner animus ran amok.
The waters had been barren of fish until about a century ago when they, like many western streams, were stocked with non-native trout; browns, rainbows and brookies. The state’s plan: kill all those fish and re-stock the place with the endangered westslope cutthroat. In its various forms the cutthroat is the only trout native to these parts. If Lewis and Clark ate a trout in Montana, it was a cutthroat. Turner has offered to pay nearly all the half a million dollars the Cherry Creek project is estimated to cost. Opposition has gathered like a thunderhead and the lawsuits are rumbling through the courts. Why kill all the fish to stock a batch of another kind that never lived there?
But who shows up on the cover of “Fly Rod & Reel” magazine’s inaugural 2002 issue? It is Ted Turner, named FR&R Angler of the Year. He is at streamside, wearing hat, dark glasses, fishing vest, pole in crook of arm and holding what looks to be not a cutthroat but a big brown trout. Turner’s quote, “fishing is good for the soul,” is repeated from the article announcing his award and the magazine editor-in-chief Paul Guernsey predicts that “more than a handful will disagree with Ted Turner’s selection.”
Guernsey was right. So many wrote in that he had to cancel one department in April’s issue in order to print what he thought would be all the missives. A typical one begins, “I almost threw up when I received…” Another quoted Turner’s “all Christians are losers” observation. Some suggested a pay-off. Several wanted subscriptions canceled. Guernsey thought the flood had subsided until Turner made his appearance at Brown University where he suggested that the September 11 terrorists were brave and explained geo-economic imbalance as the cause of the trouble. Like a late hatch, another flurry of anti-Turner letters arrived in the Rod & Reel creel. There was one more “Ted-is-a-good-guy-letter,” says Guernsey, and he’s publishing that one in the June letters column.
Cancellations? Real ones? Guernsey quotes the circulation department as saying there were about 30 over the award itself, and then another half-dozen or so following the Brown remarks. Like most fly fisherman, editor Guernsey is an optimist and says the magazine gained more than 3,000 in circulation last year. Guernsey says the award to Turner brought some “needed attention to the plight of the westslope cutthroat trout, and that makes the controversy worthwhile.”
Oh, yes. That darned westslope cutthroat.
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