Our opinion: Paranoia wins, river loses


It's always disappointing when paranoia and misinformation win out over common sense and a genuine effort to do a good thing.

A case in point is the announcement last week that the U.S. Interior Department has ended the National Blueways System, a river conservation program that was started to spur more local collaboration and help promote recreation along the country's major rivers.

The program was created in May 2012 under President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The goal was to bring coordinated federal support and recognition to big river systems where there is a comprehensive approach by diverse groups to manage and conserve the resource. The program is not about creating monuments, parks or wild and scenic designations, property or water rights or rules and regulations.

A Blueway designation would help local conservation efforts by having federal agencies work together in a coordinated approach with community stakeholders to coordinate and communicate better on projects within a watershed.

When the Connecticut River became the first National Blueway waterway last year local supporters were excited about the designation. They said a more coordinated approach between all of the local, state and federal agencies that help manage the 410-mile watershed through four states would lead to more effective conservation efforts. They also hoped that the designation would help put the river system first in line when seeking funding for projects and a higher priority in competing for federal or other aid.

There really was no downside to the program, until some conservative groups and politicians in the Midwest invented one. They feared it would lead to increased regulations and land seizures, even though federal officials made it clear that the program was voluntary and did not include any new regulations.

Unfortunately, opponents in Missouri and Arkansas 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.

This led to a departmental review and ultimately the Interior Department's decision to disband the program.

"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."

It's puzzling to us as well. If some states chose not to participate in this voluntary program that was certainly their prerogative, but we don't understand why the entire program had to be scrapped because of a few misinformed loudmouths.

The only bright spot in all of this is that the Connecticut River will retain its designation, but CRWC Executive Director Andrew Fiske said it was unclear how the watershed would now benefit from having a designation from a program that has ended.

"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."

Despite that disappointment, Fiske said, the CRWC will "continue doing what we do, and carry on that idea that protecting watersheds creates viable economies and sustainable environments."

U.S. 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. We hope he succeeds because a more coordinated approach among all of the organizations and agencies committed to protecting New England's longest river would make that job easier, avoid duplicative and wasteful efforts, and produce more effective results.


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