There are spots on the Battenkill River where you will find five times as many trout today as you would have 10 years ago, and Greg Cuda of Saratoga Springs is as responsible as anyone for that.
There are more trout because fishing groups, local residents and government agencies formed an organization that has rebuilt miles of habitat on the river, creating deep pools and hidey holes in places that had become wide, shallow and barren.
Cuda was instrumental in launching that organization, the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance, and today is the chairman of its board. He’s a past president of the Clearwater chapter of Trout Unlimited, a trout habitat advocate practically all his adult life, a skilled maker of bamboo fly rods — and now, Trout Unlimited’s 2012 Volunteer Conservationist of the Year.
“Greg’s knowledge, judgment, energy and ability to motivate others are essential elements to the restoration work on the Batten Kill River,” TU said in announcing the award.
I’ve been lucky enough to cover trout stream conservation news for the past 16 years. That whole time, Cuda has been rolling rocks, going to meetings, working the phones, filling out paperwork and doing all the other chores associated with habitat projects.
In 2001, he was one of the people who realized the Battenkill needed one organization — the Alliance — that would work both in New York and Vermont, to bridge differences in the ways the two states managed the river. He worked with the canoeing and tubing companies that had for years been removing woody debris from the ’Kill — the absence of which was found to be the reason the river’s trout population dwindled in the 1980s and ’90s.
And he managed to keep TU chapters, state conservation departments, federal agencies and locals on the same page, year after year, project after project.
“It starts before the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance even existed,” said Cynthia Browning, a Vermont state legislator who works as the BKWA’s executive director. “He was doing projects for the Battenkill, scrounging around with donated stuff and a little bit of money from TU, for over a decade. He has such a level of dedication and resourcefulness, and he has accomplished so much.
“Even though this is a Trout Unlimited award,” she added, “the projects he’s been involved with make things better for everybody — the entire river system and land owners. It’s not just about the fishing. He’s just a very steady presence, and helps people keep their eyes on the prize.”
The award comes just two years after three of Cuda’s fellow Clearwater TU chapter members swept Trout Unlimited’s national volunteer awards: Art Coleman, Bart Chabot and Roy Lamberton. Chabot was feted for education, while Coleman and Lamberton have both been involved closely with the Battenkill work. Lamberton also was a founding member of the Batten Kill Watershed Alliance.
Last year, the TU Volunteer Conservationist Award went to Carl Schwartz, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s New York coordinator, who has helped design and build virtually every stream habitat improvement project in the state in recent years, including those on the Battenkill.
Cuda said his fellow Clearwater chapter members never told him they nominated him for the award.
“I’m very surprised and a little humbled, because I’m just one cog in the works,” Cuda said. “We’re all in it together.
“The exciting thing for me is you’re starting to see a huge change in the river. Most of that is in Vermont, but we did a stretch near the state line in New York, and this late summer/early fall, I kayaked that with my son. It used to be shin-deep in there. Now, it’s beautiful water with pools and runs, and there’s nice fish in there.”
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at email@example.com.