Dave Brown, Protector of the Ocoee and Gauley, Looks Back

posted March 24, 2016
by Charlie and Sandy Walbridge

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Dave Brown, the man behind Friends of the Ocoee and Citizens For Gauley River, has announced his intent to retire as executive director of America Outdoors, the national outfitters association. The team of lawyers and scientists he assembled in the early 1980's to keep the Upper Gauley from being dammed - Pete Skinner, Pope Barrow, Mac Thornton, and Steve Taylor - later became the core of a Board of Directors that revitalized American Whitewater. He also organized the first Gauley Festival, which would later be handed over to AW. Outfitters have been a vital part of the coalition seeking to protect whitewater rivers and Dave has been an outstanding leader in these fights. Here are his refections on a remarkable career:

My journey to America Outdoors Association began on Christmas Eve 1969 when I flew to Vietnam to begin my tour on a river gunboat as part of STABRON20 (Strike Assault Boat River Operations Navy). For this unique operation in the Mekong Delta, twenty fast gunboats were built. Our mission changed soon after our arrival when our squadron was assigned to an operation near the Cambodian border, setting up nighttime ambushes and guard posts along the Grand Canal to interdict the North Vietnamese Army’s infiltration into South Vietnam. The only reason I mention it is that the aftermath eventually led me to outdoor recreation and the outfitting industry.

I will spare you the details of these operations. They were harrowing at times but uneventful for much of the deployment. Such is the nature of war. Nonetheless, after 205 patrols and many sleepless nights, I was spent, although not aware of it until I left the service. I thought PTSD was hokum, even while I struggled with some variation of it after I left the service in 1971. Fortunately, for me, there was little help for Vietnam veterans in those days. This statement may confuse you, but I am stronger today because I made up my mind to recover on my own instead of accepting the diagnoses and quest for disability status that infect so many. Many veterans need and deserve help after the stress of their service, especially in a combat environment. I hope those services for veterans have improved.

While I was finding my way in the mid 1970’s I rented a canoe from the Nantahala Outdoor Center and ran Section III of the Chattooga River. I was immediately hooked. These recreational experiences offered the risk and reward that restored one’s vigor for life. I found a healthy way to enjoy life in outdoor recreation, which offered a sense of adventure in a beautiful backcountry environment.

Using the GI Bill to graduate from college, I found a job running a Cardiac Rehab program at the VA hospital in Augusta, Georgia. After four years, the federal bureaucracy had lost its appeal and I quit my job at the height of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Great timing! As compensation for taking this risk, I rewarded myself by canoeing to the Arctic Ocean. Hardly a way forward for the unemployed, I know. But hey, the memories are still with me and I returned full of vinegar if not with any redeemable credentials to enter the private-sector recession era job market. So, I moved to Washington State for another “outdoor recreation sabbatical.”

My full beard and mountain man appearance probably resulted in the denial of my application to the University of Georgia’s graduate school for Marketing and Advertising in 1980. It seemed to have gotten lost even after acing a quarter of preparatory classes. I was clearly qualified. Too bad for them, I thought, I will just live in a tent on Chilhowie Mountain and save the Ocoee River in Southeast Tennessee. I had been kayaking the Ocoee and fallen in love with the river, which in 1980 was threatened by the reconstruction of a TVA hydroelectric project originally constructed in 1913. The river’s value as a recreational asset was so apparent; it had to be preserved. I contacted my paddling buddies in Chattanooga and moved to Tennessee to help organize a motley band that would eventually become the Ocoee River Council (ORC). The tent was temporary lodging until the outfitters realized they needed my help.

Marc Hunt, the owner of one of the original outfitting businesses on the Ocoee and one of the principals in setting up the ORC, eventually offered me a job for $150 a week to organize the effort to save the Ocoee. Looking back to that day, I realize now thatonly young, aspiring outfitters would see fit to hire someone with a full beard living in a tent. I gratefully accepted Marc’s offer and moved to his guide house armed with a cranky manual typewriter to begin the herculean effort against the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federal agency with $4 billion in annual revenues. I soon shaved to enhance my political credibility with conservative lawmakers from East Tennessee and developed an appreciation for the political constituency outfitters’ customers lent to the cause to save the Ocoee.

A quote from Mahatma Gandhi best describes the efforts of the fledging Ocoee River Council: “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” By 1983 we had won the Ocoee battle against all odds. The Ocoee River would flow for 116 days each year for the next 35 years and become the nation’s most popular whitewater river. During this period Marc helped me get a job as Executive Director of the Eastern Professional River Outfitters Association, a small group of eastern rafting companies.

As part of my job with EPRO, I journeyed out West to attend the Western River Guides Association meetings. In 1982 I represented eastern outfitters as part of a group that devised Forest Service permitting policies that survived until 2008. This twist of fate would eventually qualify me to lead America Outdoors Association. I learned much during this process with the Forest Service in the early eighties from mentors such as Harold Turner of Triangle X Ranch and C.B. Rich, Jack Rich’s father. The wisdom offered by diverse industry segments would eventually become the operating model for America Outdoors Association. Sheri Griffith, Doug Tims, Dick Linford, Bob Volpert, J.T. Lemons, Jim Greiner, John Burton, Payson Kennedy, George Wendt, Rob Elliot, Nate Rangel and so many others who led to the Association’s creation, all had the same essential vision. They used their diverse political connections to advance the industry’s common interest.

J.T. Lemons, one of the original Ocoee outfitters and a great friend, was elected President of the newly formed America Outdoors and hired me to be AO’s first Executive Director in May 1991. We started with about 180 members and revenues of $180,000. So, you may be thinking, how did I survive in this is unconventional industry for so long? Few certified association executives with button-down collars are going to want this job or fit in. You have to live it and love it, which I have with enduring respect for the hard-working, authentic small business men and women who make up our industry.

After 24 Congressional testimonies, countless legislative battles, 25 annual onventions, and more comments to rules and regulations than I can recall, it is time to pass the torch to someone else over the next two or three years. I will continue to serve full-time as the Executive Director through 2016 and into 2017. The goal is to hire someone to serve as an assistant whom I can mentor until they are prepared to take the reins.

To do this job successfully, your Executive Director has to believe in you and the incomparable, quality services you offer to the American public. That is what has driven me to do the absolute best for you for 25 years and I am committed to helping find someone to fulfill AOA’s mission in the future. For the privilege that you gave me and in return for delivering me from that tent on Chilhowie Mountain, I promise to do all I can to leave you with an organization that is worthy of your remarkable qualities. Thank you for keeping the spirit of adventure alive for so many Americans!

Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV