Conservation succeeds where passion thrives

By David A. Ramsey

It’s no secret that conservation is not a field you go into for the money. I’d wager anyone thinking otherwise hasn’t done their “career path” homework. Rather than being highly rewarding financially, conservation is largely a profession of passion—work of the heart, you could say—much like teaching.

I’ve known and worked with many conservation volunteers and feel privileged to have been part of that community for nearly 30 years now. It’s a community that is vital and committed to preserving and protecting the outdoor heritage we cherish and want to pass on to coming generations. But the fact is, volunteers couldn’t accomplish much at all if not for the professionals that do the long, hard, day-in and day-out work of laying the scientific foundations and developing the tools on which the nonprofits and volunteers rely when working and advocating for conservation. And the truth is, most of those same professionals are right out there, off the clock, volunteering too and increasing the bang for the buck in protecting the great outdoors!

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending the annual Southern Fly Fishing Hall of Fame event, held in Bryson City, NC, which recognizes outstanding individuals in various aspects of Southern fly fishing. From this 2023 group of inductees, I had the chance to learn about Conservation Inductee, Mike Lavoie, one of the finest examples of a passionate conservation professional we have here in the Mountain South,.

Working as the Natural Resources Director on the Qualla Boundary of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Mike has earned a reputation among his peers and the Cherokee community for his dedication to the protection and stewardship of the Boundary’s wildlife and natural resources. His work includes managing for culturally significant species, Rare and ESA listed species, hunting, public wildlife viewing, invasive species and animal disease traceability. And of course, as a fisherman himself, Mike is highly passionate about his work to protect and help sustain the fish and aquatic life that make the waters of the Qualla Boundary their home.

An integral part of that work is taking care of those waters through the prevention and mitigation of pollution, habitat loss and invasive species, among other threats. Mike helps accomplish this massive challenge through effective communication with the community and Tribal leadership to help shape and execute solid, conservation-based policies and strategic planning—and this can only happen through a broad understanding of traditional Cherokee ecological knowledge and present-day cultural values.

Taking good care of the trout and trout waters of the area has a pretty powerful economic component as well, with trout fishing adding $26 million in annual impact to the community and supporting some 300 jobs. As Mike says, “Conservation can only be successful when it is connected to community well-being.” This is reflected in his all-out commitment to his current priorities of river restoration and increasing the long-term resiliency and sustainability of natural resources in the face of climate change.

To Mike, it’s a matter of plain old common sense that the healthier our natural resources are, the healthier we and our communities will be. And when asked about one of the most important things the rest of us can do to protect and preserve that natural heritage for the future, he answers firmly, “Take a kid outside and teach what is important.”

This conservation pro has more than demonstrated his Hall of Fame-worthy dedication to his profession and to the philosophy that what is good for our lands and waters is good for us all. Congratulations, Mike Lavoie!

David Arthur Ramsey is an outdoor photographer, writer and conservationist, born and raised in the mountains of northeastern Tennessee. His outdoor writing and photography have been published locally, regionally and nationally and are most often associated with work to preserve and protect threatened lands and waters throughout the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Field and Stream Magazine and Toyota Motor Company named David the National Hero of Conservation in 2011 for his leadership in saving the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed in northeastern Tennessee. His newly published book, Rocky Fork: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild, tells the story, through his rich photography and his first-hand account, of the more than decade-long battle to preserve this Appalachian and American treasure.