Trout Unlimited Engagement Coordinator Jamie Vaughn working to make Michigan’s watersheds more inclusive and accessible to people from all walks of life
Many people face barriers when engaging with the natural world — barriers that exist due to factors beyond their control.
Breaking down those barriers is something that 32-year-old Jamie Vaughan is passionate about, in part because she’s had to overcome them in her own life.
A native of Chicago, Vaughan said she didn’t have much access to nature as a child and didn’t get a chance to participate in outdoor recreational activities such as hunting and fishing until she was an adult.
However, a love of wildlife came early in her life, particularly “big, exotic animals” such as lions and polar bears, which she saw regularly on television.
Her love of animals manifested in a number of different ways. Examples include the time she wrote a letter to then-President Bill Clinton about the plight of endangered animals; on another occasion, when she heard about someone in her neighborhood who had a nurse shark in a “terribly small tank,” she spearheaded a campaign to upgrade its habitat — by selling lemonade to raise money for a larger tank.
Through her teenage years, Vaughan’s interest in wildlife, the environment and conservation continued to grow, and in high school, she began taking classes that would prepare her for an eventual career in the field.
“I feel lucky that I knew early on that’s what I wanted to do,” said Vaughan, who, after graduating from high school, attended the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor of science degree in environmental science.
While Vaughan was still a novice to angling and hadn’t even heard of fly fishing at that point in her life, she knew she wanted to work in a field related to freshwater lakes, streams and rivers.
Trout Unlimited seemed like a perfect match, so she applied and was selected for an intern position at the organization.
This internship was invaluable to Vaughan, who helped to conduct fieldwork in the Rogue River near Grand Rapids — an area where adjacent urban development had led to some environmental harm; the team’s goal was to research and develop methods for re-naturalizing the landscape, thereby improving the resiliency of trout and other wildlife.
Through the internship, Vaughan said she gained a detailed understanding of how watersheds work and how human activities can influence them. She also learned how much watersheds benefit humans, whether they realize it or not.
Another skill Vaughan honed, and one which she would later bring to other roles at TU, was collaboration with multiple teams and organizations toward similar goals.
Vaughan was eventually promoted from intern to project coordinator and then to project manager, which is a position that focuses on the grant-writing side of TU’s conservation work.
In 2021, she was selected to be TU’s Great Lakes engagement coordinator.
In Vaughan’s current role, she aims to build communities of people throughout the state who care and are excited about cold-water conservation, and to develop partnerships to improve and maintain watershed habitats, similar to the work done at the Rogue River.
Vaughan engages with the public through several mediums, including press releases, posts on social media and interviews with journalists.
She also meets with people directly — a medium she’s found to be most effective in garnering on-the-ground support for conservation.
“Meeting people where they are,” Vaughan said. “There is an important element of being there in the community.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of the job for Vaughan is helping people from similar backgrounds. She understands what it’s like not to know how to tie a fly, for instance, so when she sees someone struggling with something like that, she inherently knows how to put them at ease and make them feel like they’re not “the odd man out,” as she puts it.
“It can be intimidating,” Vaughan said. “I know those kinds of fears and where they might be unprepared, so I try to make things easier for them to digest. I feel like I have a good perspective for making people comfortable.”
Vaughan said she strives to make people feel like they belong in the conservation community, particularly people from demographics who have been historically under-represented.
An example of this is TU’s STREAM Girls camp. The acronym STREAM is a play off the well-known STEM acronym, (science, technology, engineering and math), with an added fly fishing element.
At camp, the girls visit a local stream, tie flies, fish and talk science, all under the tutelage of experienced female anglers such as Vaughan. She said the camp is a way for TU to bridge the gender gap and introduce girls to activities, concepts and information they might not usually be exposed to.
Vaughan said another program with a lot of community-building potential is TU’s “Tree Army,” a large-scale tree-planting initiative.
The inspiration behind the Tree Army goes back a long way, to the 1930s when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the Great Depression, called on 3 million jobless men to plant trees and rehabilitate the American landscape, which was decimated by poor farming and forestry practices.
Tree Army is a similar concept, albeit a more inclusive one.
Vaughan said that people from all walks of life are invited to become “soldiers” in the Tree Army, which has planted around 50,000 trees along watersheds throughout West Michigan.
Ultimately, Vaughan said the hope is that the program will spread to other parts of Michigan as they find more regional partners and attract more soldiers.
“Trout streams face so many threats as it is,” Vaughan said. “We need everyone together on this.”
Those who’ve worked with Vaughan have found that her enthusiasm for conservation inspires them to be better conservationists.
“Jamie has an innate ability to share her love of conservation with different groups of people — decision-makers, school children, volunteers — and communicates ways that these groups can engage and take action in their communities,” said Nichol DeMol, Vaughan’s longtime mentor and current TU Great Lakes Habitat program director.
“She started as an intern, and her drive to positively impact the environment and excitement for connecting people with nature has helped her move up the ranks to her current position. Jamie is an asset to our organization and many people, including myself, have learned how to become better stewards of our environment because of her.”