Editorial note: As a frequent angler of the San Juan River and a longtime New Mexico journalist I feel compelled to publish this article in the interest of fairness and to voice an often overlooked side of the story about this great fishery and the decent, hard working folks who live and work there.
Oscar Simpson of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation has apologized to a group of San Juan River fishing guides for his making unsubstantiated claims and stirring up negative publicity about the blue ribbon trout fishery to further his political objectives.
“I’m sorry if I cost you guys some money,” Simpson told a gathering of San Juan River Guides Association members at a tape recorded meeting in Aztec on March 23. “But the only way to get politicians moving is with bad press and a lot of constituents chewing on their ass.”
Arron Carithers, Vice President of the guides’ association said after the meeting that Simpson’s crusade against the oil and gas industry is ruining the fishing guide business on the San Juan River below Navajo Dam.
“He has no evidence to back up some of the things he’s saying and it’s killing us – just so he can further his own agenda,” said Carithers, who runs Anasazi Anglers of Durango, Colo.and has been guiding on the river for 18 years. “Personally, I don’t want anything more to do with him or his cause.”
Simpson who says he’s a paid public lands organizer for the National Wildlife Federation, is one of the oil and gas industry’s most vocal critics and claims that silt and sediment runoff from drilling on surrounding mesas is killing the San Juan river.
“If we don’t have a multiple approach … this world-class fishery will be lost within a few short years,” Simpson told the Associated Press (AP) for a February article about the river.
The article stated that two thirds of the river had become silt laden, forcing the river’s trout into a small area below the dam, something many guides and locals would have been happy to debate.
After all, the quality waters above Simon Canyon had been scoured clean by an average flow of 3,000 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) for five straight months last winter and the river saw an average flow of 750 cfs in the seven months before that.
The San Juan is normally flowing at about 500 cfs those times of year.
And plenty of trout have been caught up and down the river all year long, as any parking lot inquiry or flyshop discussion would have revealed.
Nonetheless, Simpson continued to make his apocalyptic claims during the guides’ meeting, arguing that if the group didn’t join in his campaign, then the river would be “dead and gone” in a few more years and the guides would all be out of jobs.
When questioned during the meeting about some of his public statements about the river’s supposed declining health and loss of fish habitat, Simpson conceded he had no scientific evidence to back those statements.
Simpson then apologized for his use of “political license” and explained he had to “rattle some cages” and “make big statements” to attract political attention to his cause.
Simpson warned the guides that the “press would cut their throats” if there was any “conflicting messages ” from those speaking on behalf of the river and stressed the need to “stay on message” and “stick together.”
Simpson then urged the group to get on board with his newly formed San Juan Quality Waters Coalition which includes members of another group that shares Simpson’s ideology, the Concerned Citizens of the San Juan and its spokesman, Andreas Novak.
Novak was also quoted in the same AP article written by Susan Montoya Bryan that states “Novak and other anglers are worried that erosion from increased gas and oil activity and low flows mandated by federal officials for endangered species and water users downstream could mean the death of the fishery, if something isn’t done.”
Novak and his followers have been calling for increased flows to return the river to its glory days when higher flows routinely scoured silt and sediment from the riverbed, producing prolific insect hatches and easy angling for big fish.
What they don’t explain is how they intend to accomplish that, especially since the Navajos own most of the water behind the dam and the feds that control it have bigger priorities than fishing.
It’s a sticky issue that’s conveniently overlooked in their rhetoric.
Perhaps that’s why Simpson, a self admitted “half-assed” fly fisherman who hasn’t angled much on the San Juan since the 1980s, told the guides that he wants to see an independent, scientific study done on the river to determine what’s going on and recommend solutions.
Simpson said after the meeting during a telephone interview with Outdoors New Mexico that he doesn’t consider the recently completed San Juan River White Paper conducted by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) to be such a valid study.
The department’s White Paper includes results from angler satisfaction interviews, annual electro-shocking surveys, water flow data and government reports that shows despite lower flows in recent years the river still maintains a healthy, stable, population of big trout and that the vast majority of anglers are highly satisfied with the fishing.
The White Paper also cites a US Geological study of the oil and gas industry’s impact of the area that shows 87 percent of silt and sedimentation in the river is produced by naturally occurring runoff.
The White Paper notes that NMDGF routinely replenishes the San Juan River’s stock of rainbow trout and naturally reproducing brown trout also make up a big share of the tailwater’s 70,000 fish found in a 4.5-mile, specially managed, quality water section.
The average trout caught on the San Juan ranges in length from 16 to 18 inches while trophy fish over 20 inches are routinely netted, according to the White Paper.
And what you don’t find in the NMDGF White Paper, many longtime locals can provide with their knowledge of the weather, the surrounding natural environment and the river’s history and behavior.
It should be noted that neither the White Paper’s results, nor any comments from the San Juan River Guides Association, local residents or business owners were included in the AP article about the river.
Carithers noted the AP article was dispersed nationwide due to the news co-op’s reach and that kind of publicity could result in irreparable damage to the river’s reputation as one of the country’s top ten fly fishing destinations.
Simpson explained during the guides’ meeting that he wasn’t satisfied with his fellow Game Commissioner’s conclusion last year that conditions on the San Juan River were acceptable which is why he felt the need to call in a reporter to write the story.
Simpson is a former state Game Commissioner who was replaced in January after serving about a year on the commission.
The governor’s office reports Simpson was replaced because the state senate failed to confirm his appointment in the first place.
During his tenure on the commission Simpson advocated for NMDGF to take a more aggressive stance in its dealings with the oil and gas industry.
Simpson at the time also urged sportsmen to join a new organization he was championing, Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, which also targets the oil and gas industry.
Simpson said in an interview with Outdoors New Mexico following his appointment to the commission that he once worked for the state’s oil conservation division, which led to his desire to see more oversight of the oil and gas industry.
Simpson claimed that the oil and gas industry was destroying wildlife habitat and having a negative impact on hunting and fishing in New Mexico and he wanted to see tighter regulation and control.
Simpson then found himself a constituency to serve and a battle to fight with the oil and gas industry down on the San Juan River.
San Juan fishing guides and anglers got their first taste of then Commissioner Simpson’s agenda and tactics after he and his organization ran a negative radio ad about the San Juan river in the Albuquerque market late last summer.
The ad came after a black mass was seen floating down the river near Navajo Dam following a thunderstorm. It was captured on video and thought by some who viewed it, such as Simpson, to have been caused by oil pollution from the nearby oil and gas fields.
Shortly thereafter the questionable radio ad was aired in which a youngster asks about going fishing on the San Juan River and is told by an adult that may never happen again because of pollution from the oil and gas industry.
Both the state Oil Conservation Division of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department and the Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) investigated the matter and following site inspections and an analysis of the video found no evidence of oil, and no signs of dead or dying fish or other wildlife, according to a press release issued by the NMDGF.
Investigators determined that the most likely explanation for the report was that a large amount of organic debris was flushed out of an arroyo during a heavy rainstorm.
Organic materials such as piñon needles, juniper berries and salt cedar branches contain natural oils and could be mistaken for oil field byproducts, the press release stated.
The Citizen’s Alliance for Responsible Energy blasted the ad in its September 2008 newsletter saying “the ad is wholly deceptive–built on a false premise, making a guilty assumption with no avenue for defense.”
But by the then the damage had already been done and guides were receiving calls from clients asking what the hell was going on down on their river.
Simpson defended airing the ad during an Albuquerque radio talk show regarding new proposed oil and gas regulation during this year’s legislative session.
Simpson was unapologetic and argued the ad was okayed by his organization’s lawyers and only “implied” that the river had been polluted by oil and gas activity.
But Simpson’s willingness to sacrifice the river’s reputation and related businesses to further his campaign against the oil and gas industry has angered many on the San Juan.
Bubba Smith, fishing guide and one of the directors of the San Juan River Foundation complained to Simpson during the guides’ meeting that Simpson’s negative publicity campaign had cost Smith’s foundation $110,000 in pledged contributions from the energy industry.
The foundation’s mission is to raise funds that can be used by the NMDGF for in-stream habitat improvements and other worthy projects on the San Juan River.
And the energy industry was instrumental to NMDGF’s past efforts in constructing in-stream habitat improvements on the San Juan below Simon Canyon and at Cottonwood Campground, providing cash and other assistance.
Those improvements have helped keep silt and sediment suspended and flowing downstream while providing habitat for fish and the insects they feed upon.
The NMDGF’s plan is to manage the fishery for low water flows and expects to continue with similar habitat improvement projects throughout the river.
Smith said energy industry representatives he had been working with were upset that they were the target of negative publicity, especially since they have tried to be good neighbors on the San Juan River.
Smith is credited with bringing Governor Bill Richardson’s down to the river last fall, a trip which resulted in Richardson seeking and obtaining $250,000 from this year’s cash strapped legislature for more improvements to the San Juan fishery.
The governor’s appropriation is earmarked exclusively for in-stream habitat projects on the river and will be the subject of upcoming discussions by the state Game Commission which is meeting in Farmington on April 16th.
Smith said after the guides’ meeting with Simpson that his foundation wants to maintain good working relations with those agencies involved in operating the dam, maintaining the fishery and helping with economic development.
“So I don’t think you’ll see us aligning ourselves with his (Simpson’s) coalition.” Smith said. “We just don’t see oil and gas as the boogeyman here.”
And while some may feel Simpson’s efforts are well intended, after all he was actively involved in helping save the wildly popular Valle Vidal from any oil and gas development, others say his current activities are damaging to his, and his organization’s, integrity.
For instance, during this year’s annual hunting and fishing show at the state fairgrounds in Albuquerque, Simpson angered show promoter and highly respected voice of the outdoors, Bob Gerding, by reportedly harassing attendees and using questionable rhetoric to obtain signatures on a petition opposing a legislative bill favorable to the Valles Caldera National Preserve in the Jemez Mountains.
Gerding said he was forced to tell Simpson to “straighten up” and “shut up” or he would have to leave.
Executive Director of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Jeremy Vesbach, told Outdoors New Mexico when questioned about the show said that he didn’t think the confrontation with Gerding was that big a deal.
But Gerding, who stated after the show that he wouldn’t invite the Wildlife Federation back next year, obviously thinks it is, enough so, that he’s now thinking about not inviting any non-profit groups back next year.
“There’s just too many conflicting agendas,” Gerding said. “And some of these guys just don’t know how to behave.”
Vesbach did not return a call seeking comment on Simpson’s activities nor did Jennifer Jones, Vice President of Strategic Communications for the National Wildlife Federation.
And during his previously mentioned telephone interview with Outdoors New Mexico, Simpson grew irate and hung up when asked to justify some of the statements he’d been making about conditions on the San Juan River.
In the meantime, Peggy Harrell of Abes Motel and Flyshop reports fishing on the San Juan River is fair with the river flowing at 500 cfs and fish up to 20-inches, mostly rainbows, hitting on red larva and egg or apricot colored egg patterns.