BRATTLEBORO -- The U.S. Interior Department has ended a river conservation program that was started to spur more local collaboration and help promote recreation along the country's major rivers.
The Interior Department on Friday ended the U.S. Blueway program because some landowners and politicians in the Midwest feared it would lead to increased regulations and land seizures.
The National Blueways System was created in May 2012 under President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The program was voluntary and didn't include any new regulations.
The Connecticut River became the first National Blueway waterway last year, and while the river will retain its designation, local supporters of the program said they were disappointed the national program was halted
"It's very discouraging that the Obama Administration allowed paranoid voices, that were based on unfounded fears, to terminate a program that was started to help rivers in this country," said David Deen, river steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. "There are no property rights that would be impacted by this program. That is not what it was intended to do, and the fact that they were willing to just walk away from this program is beyond me."
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement Friday that her agency decided to disband the program, which was formed by her predecessor, Ken Salazar, after a departmental review.
"The National Blueways Committee will be deactivated, but the department will continue to encourage collaborative, community-based watershed partnerships that support sustainable and healthy water supplies," department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said.
Jewell put the program on hold in July, two weeks after removing the designation from the White River, which spans more than 700 miles through Missouri and Arkansas.
While the program was intended solely to recognize conservation efforts, supporters hoped that gaining a National Blueway designation would put their waterways at the front of the line for federal grants. The White River received the designation after several groups, including the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Nature Conservancy, nominated it for inclusion.
Federal officials insisted the program would not include any new protective status or regulations, but opponents in Missouri and Arkansas -- largely conservative groups -- weren't convinced. Their push back intensified in late June, when a coalition of Republican U.S. senators and representatives from both states sent a letter to the Interior Department asking how to revoke the designation.
At the same time members of Congress from Connecticut and New Hampshire wrote Jewell to say they supported the program, but the opposition won out in the end.
On Friday Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he would try to find other ways to support efforts between states to collaborate on conservation and recreation activities.
"I supported the National Blueways program as a good way for the federal government to support the voluntary conservation and stewardship of our greatest rivers. I am sorry to see the program curtailed nationally but am glad that Interior Secretary Jewell has reconfirmed the Connecticut River Blueway designation," Leahy said. "I also appreciate that she has clearly restated the Interior Department's support for active and collaborative stewardship of the Connecticut River. I will work with other members of Congress representing the Connecticut River watershed to help fulfill this commitment."
Connecticut River Watershed Council Executive Director Andrew Fiske said it was unclear how the Connecticut River would now benefit from having a designation from a program that has ended.
Independent conservation and recreation organizations work up and down the river to promote their sections and the U.S. Blueway program was started to help those groups collaborate more and build a stronger system along the waterway.
Fiske said that work will continue, regardless of what the federal government has decided to do with the Blueways program.
"The Interior Department did say that they want that collaboration to continue, and I guess now we have the honor of saying that we are the only National Blueway in the country," Fiske said. "We are gratified that will stay in place, but it's very unfortunate it was scuttled on unfounded concerns. There has not been a peep of concern around her about this. We are going to continue doing what we do, and carry on that idea that protecting watersheds create viable economies and sustainable environments."
The Associated Press contributed to this story
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com; or 802-254-2311, ext. 279. You can follow Howard on Twitter @HowardReformer.