What’s a trout stream worth?

Sit on the banks of a healthy trout stream for several minutes and you’ll start to see an entire world. In one cold pool of water the size of a pickup-truck bed, you can watch life begin and end as thousands of insects from dozens of different species hatch, mate and die. Fish battle the current—and one another—for every spent caddis fly and mayfly. Green foliage crowds the banks, glowing with vitality.

Cold water jewel: WNC’s trout depend on cold, unpolluted water. photo by Malcolm Crittenden, PA DEP

If trout streams lack the bounty of life that, say, a warm-water bass pond supports, what life they do contain is perfectly suited to its austere, cold environment. The slightest change in temperature, weather, water quality or any one of a thousand other factors can shake things up things drastically.

Last week I was fishing the Laurel River when I noticed a dead trout lying belly-up on the stream bottom. I picked it up to check for a torn mouth or any sign that the fish had been deliberately killed or mishandled. But this fish looked to have died a natural death—a rare thing in a river as hard-fished as the Laurel.

It wasn’t long before I saw another dead fish, and then another. A few minutes later, I spotted a 12-inch rainbow trout thrashing on the surface, its head completely out of the water. I’ve been trout fishing hundreds of times and have never seen anything like it. I watched as the fish struggled and finally gave up, rolling over and sinking to the bottom.

This scene was taking place a few hundred yards downstream from where a luxury mountainside development is now under construction. Now, I haven’t seen this community’s promotional material, but it’s pretty common these days for developers to use attractions like “pristine” trout streams to peddle their projects. I wonder if they see the irony of their words.

The Laurel was the first Western North Carolina trout stream I ever fished. Even back then (about eight years ago), it wasn’t the most “natural” of streams, considering that a road runs alongside it for several miles. But the water was clean (if a little warm), the fishing was good and the river, unlike many cramped mountain streams, was big enough to get a good back-cast going.

Since then, however, it has deteriorated. When it rains, the river now turns chocolate brown with runoff spurred by development and deforestation. In turn, the runoff warms the water, making the river less hospitable to trout and more friendly to smallmouth bass, which are appearing in ever-larger numbers. This spring I’ve caught equal numbers of smallmouth bass and trout out of the Laurel, despite the fact that thousands of trout are stocked every year and not a single bass is.

I’m not opposed to economic growth. I’m not opposed to development or to anybody making a good living. But I am opposed to environmental degradation with long-term negative effects that will not only hurt habitat but will eventually become an actual drag on the local economy.

Consider this: Just as a trout stream is a dynamic, sensitive ecosystem, so is human life itself. Whether we know it or not, we are still beholden to our natural environment, if a bit removed from it. These small things that we’re losing, like rainbow trout and spent mayflies, are in fact part of a snowball effect. If the headwaters of the Laurel River are deforested, that means the river floods faster. That means the French Broad floods faster. And that means people downstream ultimately pay for what armies of developers are building.

There’s far more at work here than local flooding, though, including broader water-quality issues and the problems associated with global warming. Even the developers will feel it one day: Without inspirational views and “pristine” trout streams to advertise, they’ll have a harder time hawking their mountainside castles.

The problem is, mountainside developments have a dollar value—and a high one at that. One trout suffocating in a polluted, warm, silty stream just can’t compete. And in this writer’s opinion, that’s a shame.

[Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]

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