KANSAS CITY, Mo. – A U.S. Interior Department program intended to recognize conservation efforts along the nation’s waterways was dissolved on Friday amid opposition from landowners and politicians who feared it would lead to increased regulations and possible 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, didn’t include any new regulations, and a designation – bestowed on only two rivers, one of which was dropped last year because of local opposition – brought no additional funding.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement 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. The only other National Blueway waterway – the Connecticut River, which runs through Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire – will retain the designation, Jewell said on Friday.
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 pushback 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.
Eventually, even supporters of the White River’s designation pushed to have the title rescinded because they feared the dispute could make landowners resistant to voluntarily cooperating with conservation efforts.
David Casaletto, head of the Missouri-based Ozarks Water Watch, noted that his group initially supported the program because it was a nice way to recognize the conservation efforts of local communities and property owners. He said nobody anticipated such staunch opposition.
“It was more important to maintain our partnerships and our support from the local people we work with than to retain something that, other than being recognized, doesn’t do anything,” Casaletto said. “There was no reason to jeopardize our local support over that recognition.”
Todd Sampsell, director of Missouri’s Nature Conservancy, blamed the program’s demise on too many people misunderstanding the program.
“That’s a product of a failure of communication somewhere along the line,” he said Friday. “When that happens, people tend to want to insert their own thoughts and ideologies about what’s going to happen, and it escalated from there.”
The Interior Department said only one other state had expressed interest in the program, but that it never got past the discussion stage before Jewell put it on hold.
After the White River designation was rescinded in July, Arkansas Sen. John Boozman released a statement saying the program wasn’t necessary to improve cooperation between federal and state agencies to manage the river.
“We all agree that we should work to protect our waterways,” he said. “This designation occurred without a formal process – no public comment, lack of transparency from the federal government and without the broad support of Arkansans.”
Jeannie Burlsworth, founder of the conservative group Secure Arkansas, applauded the decision to end the program Friday.
“If there hadn’t been such a public outcry, they would have never rescinded it,” she said. “They had planned on doing this across the U.S.”