The first time Haley Powell held a cutthroat trout in her hand, one she’d caught by herself on her fly rod, she felt a pure connection with nature.
The sun beat down, and a breeze cooled, she said. She knew as she released the fish what it was like to hold something wild in her hands.
It’s an experience Powell, 17, is trying to protect.
“Everyone sees the video of the old guy who talks about what it used to be like and how good it used to be and people care for a minute and then forget,” Powell said. “The younger generation cares. We are inspired, and we need to be inspired. Your generation is leaving the environment in our hands, and we have to take care of it.”
The Rock Springs teenager wrote recently about her time fishing in the Little Mountain area in southwest Wyoming. Her essay, called “Public Lands and Me,” was one of five across the country to win a youth writing contest sponsored by Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development. On Tuesday, she flew to Washington D.C. as part of the prize, and on Wednesday met with Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Her essay focused on the importance of conserving public lands. She isn’t alone with her views. A recent poll by Colorado College’s State of the Rockies Project found 73 percent of Wyomingites consider themselves conservationists.
The poll surveyed 2,400 people in six western states asking dozens of questions including their views on topics such as water, energy resources, loss of habitat for fish and wildlife and air pollution.
“This poll reinforces what we've seen first-hand. The people of Wyoming care deeply about conservation and recognize the importance of protecting our lands and waters to our economy and quality of life,” said Andrea Erickson Quiroz, state director of the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy in a release.
Quiroz cited programs and initiatives like the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust fund and the Governor’s energy strategy as proof of Wyoming’s views.
A focus on conservation in a state that relies heavily on the extractive mineral industry may seem like a contradiction, but it’s not, said Graham McGaffin, external relations manager for The Nature Conservancy.
The two things -- energy and conservation -- are not mutually exclusive.
“What we’ve learned in Wyoming, is that it is possible to have a robust mineral-based economy and still value the natural resources we have around us and work to conserve those resources,” he said.
Powell also wants people to realize participating in conservation is not as difficult as it may seem. Projects to improve streams or wetlands don’t have to involve millions of dollars and weeks of work.
Improving hunting, fishing or other recreation areas can be as simple as spring clean ups or invasive species removal, she said.
“People care, but don’t know how to go about it,” she said.
Powell wants to help people understand what they can do to improve the environment and how industry and conservation can coexist. Right now, she acts as the youth membership chairwoman for Wyoming for Trout Unlimited and is a founding member of the group’s national youth leadership council. She recently filmed a video in the Little Mountain area south of Rock Springs to promote sound development policies as the Bureau of Land Management begins studying well permits in the area.
She spoke before the Legislature’s Joint Travel, Recreation, Wildlife and Cultural Resources interim committee in August to advocate for increased money for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. She worries about the future of Wyoming’s fish and wildlife if the agency doesn’t have enough money to manage them properly. Powell also mourned the loss of a youth summer outdoor camp she had hoped to attend that was cut because of the budget woes.
“While the youth programs don’t seem important now, they are going to seem important in 50 years when we don’t have anything left and we didn’t inspire anyone to care about them,” she said.
When she graduates from high school, she plans to study zoology at the University of Wyoming and then environmental law. She wants to work as a liaison between environmental agencies and energy companies.
“I would like to have the knowledge of what is needed for the environment and have the legal background to figure out how to make it work with our economy,” she said.
In the meantime, she’ll be fishing.