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Chris Edgington on relationships, watersheds & traditional access for all

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Chris Edgington with stunning brown trout. (Photo Chris Edgington)

Where do you live?

I live in Dillon, Montana.

Where do you work or what is your profession?

I am the Jefferson Watershed Project Manager for Montana Trout Unlimited. That includes working in the Jefferson, Big Hole, Beaverhead, Ruby, Red Rock, and Boulder River drainages. I also do some project work in the Judith Basin.

The mission of Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) is to conserve, protect, and restore Montana’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds — the RVSA helps me look at the watershed scale, which is so important to understand. To understand the pieces, you have to understand the whole.

The mission of Montana Trout Unlimited (MTU) is to conserve, protect, and restore Montana’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.

What do you do for fun?

First and foremost, my fun time is spent fishing and exploring southwest Montana. In the winter, I like to ski. My previous career was as a chef, so cooking food for friends and family is right up there as one of my favorite things to do.

How are you connected to the Ruby Valley or surrounding area?

The way I think about my position with MTU is the bullseye of my work is Twin Bridges (the northern end of the Ruby Valley); Twin Bridges is very uniquely positioned at the confluence of three major river systems that create the Jefferson River, one of the three forks of the Missouri River. The Ruby River in the Ruby Valley is one of the three rivers that creates the Jefferson. Hydrologically, there’s a lot going on around here and there’s a lot of work that can be done to improve the watershed for the benefit of all water users.

I can recall the first time I heard about the Ruby River. I was living in Missoula at the time, probably around 2002 or 2003, and I was at the Missoulian Angler. There was a gal who worked there from the Ruby Valley. It seemed like her family had been in the Ruby for a long time and she was really tied to the landscape. The way she described the valley was almost mystical. I wish I could reconnect with that person again and hear her thoughts today.

One thing that stands out to me about the Ruby is when I go there to fish, it's a place I go to think. It's a place you can go find a way to be by yourself. I always find answers there, I don't always go looking for them, but it's a good place to clear your mind, declutter, and think.

Chris participating in the Beaverhead River cleanup. (Photo Chris Edgington)

Why are you a member of the RVSA?

Initially, my predecessor that worked for MTU in the area was a member. He went on to the Montana Stockgrowers Association and stayed connected to RVSA for a while — he always spoke highly of the group. It was a work connection and I really didn’t know what I was walking into. I had not been a part of other collaboratives yet, coming fresh from a career change. I found the group to be very welcoming, and Darcie (Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Montana Conservation Coordinator) started that meeting with yoga as the inspiration. I was looking around the room at this diverse group of strangers and didn’t know what was going on. It blew my mind in the best way possible from my very first interaction.

It’s important for me to be a part of the group because I continue to find increasing value in the friendships and relationships we have. I can pick up the phone and call anyone in the group if I’m having a problem, need some advice, or want to share good news — it's all very possible with the RVSA membership.

What is the vision and goals for the RVSA?

It might sound cliché or redundant, but maintaining working relationships and traditional Montana values. There’s a lot that goes into that statement, but I think that's the vision for the group. That resonates with me because I’m a transplant from Nebraska, but I never felt at home until I got to Montana. I had never visited Montana; one day I packed up my stuff in the car and drove to Montana — and it felt like I came home. Preserving some of the things about Montana that really resonated with me as a 22-year-old is very important to me.

Chris checking out a spawning habitat improvement project. (Photo Chris Edgington)
"I am a part of three other collaboratives, and there is nothing else like the RVSA."

What do you see as some of RVSA’s key accomplishments?

Before my time, MTU worked with Neil Barnosky, another RVSA member, to maintain public fishing access on his property along with two other access sites with two other landowners. These sites are unique because they allow access above the high-water mark — you can fish from most county bridges in the state, but you’re not allowed above the high-water mark. One year, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks came up short with funding to pay for those public accesses, so MTU and three local TU chapters paid the shortcoming for five years while Fish, Wildlife & Parks was able to rebudget for that.

The landowners could have easily leased the fishing access to an outfitter for, what I’m guessing, more money, but those folks place value in that traditional access for all. I wrote a blog about it for the RVSA site, it’s been in our quarterly magazine, it’s been a big deal. We take access and river access for granted in Montana. Those are values that need to be fought for, and we continue to fight for them, so it’s great to see members of this group support traditional access for all.

I also want to note our recent watershed management strategy exercise, which has taken more than a year to finalize. That process was new, and honestly abstract to me, and I didn’t quite know why we were going through all of what we went through. When the final product was shared, I was just blown away by how useful the strategy was and could revision the steps we went through to get there.

What do you look forward to while working with this group?

I think our yearly watershed tours stand out to me — we really cover it all. Not just from the top of the valley to the bottom, we discuss topics anywhere from range management, to conifer encroachment, conservation easements, stream restoration, and even heirloom apple orchards. I’m a person who wants to be a lifelong learner, and that’s what I get from this group. I learn every time and from every topic we discuss. Those tours are not only a great day to showcase what makes the valley unique, but also what makes the RVSA and our relationships unique. I am a part of three other collaboratives, and there is nothing else like the RVSA.

What do you think others could learn from the RVSA?

Habitat diversity and complexity is important to the survival of wild animals. Much like the animals and fish we care about, I think the diversity of this group is how we survive and thrive. In this group, we purposefully and intentionally work to find common solutions. I think that is uncommon in the current state of the world, but the purposefully driven need to find common solutions — I want people to know that is possible. The work we’re doing is getting noticed not only locally, but by delegations in Washington D.C. We are having an impact and will continue to grow.

"Habitat diversity and complexity is important to the survival of wild animals. Much like the animals and fish we care about, I think the diversity of this group is how we survive and thrive."

What have you been surprised by in your work with the RVSA?

How much this diverse group has in common. Our common threads, the friendships that have formed, and how much we have each other's backs continues to amaze me. Also, how difficult conversations have resulted in really clear solutions.

What is your hope for the future of the Ruby Valley?

A thriving, working landscape with access to quality fishing and outdoor experiences. Maybe another good brewery.

Knee deep in fieldwork, Chris cleaning out a Denil fish ladder. (Photo Chris Edgington)

What is your personal theme and/or walk song?

This was the toughest question for me today, but the first song on David Grisman’s album, The David Grisman Quintet, E.D.M. There’s a traveling optimism that is contagious and brightens any mood. I love music, especially live music.

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