River heritage plan sent downstream

  • North Fork of the Gunnison River near Hotchkiss, Colo.

    Jeff Crane photo
 

PAONIA, Colo. - When water engineer Jeff Crane learned about a new program called the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, he thought he'd found something his community could rally behind.

Over the past three years, Crane has been working to build consensus among landowners, fruit farmers and gravel miners along western Colorado's North Fork of the Gunnison River. His group, the North Fork River Improvement Association, has been looking for ways to reduce erosion and restore fish habitat.

The American Heritage Rivers Initiative looked like it would do just that. Introduced by President Clinton during his 1997 State of the Union Address, the initiative is designed to bolster local economies and help with river restoration projects. Its main tool is a federally subsidized expert called a "river navigator," who would help connect communities with existing grant money and technical information.

But when Crane and his group nominated the North Fork for heritage status, they discovered that rather than pulling the community together, it drove people apart.

Some locals charged the initiative threatened private property and water rights by bringing in a heavy-handed federal official to watch over their river. Delta County commissioners channeled the outcry to Colorado Republican Reps. Bob Schaffer and Scott McInnis, who wrote a pointed letter to the official in charge of the initiative in Washington, D.C., Kathleen McGinty, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "If the era of big government is over," they wrote, "then this plan will start a new one."

The flap spurred the North Fork group to drop its nomination. "Another river will have to be the guinea pig," says Crane.

The same story has played out across the West, stunning the policy-makers and river advocates who created the initiative. "It is just incomprehensible why opposition has arisen to this program, which is 100 percent voluntary," says McGinty. But property-rights defenders, multiple-use groups and conservative lawmakers have done everything in their power to halt the designation of heritage rivers.

Western rivers don't flow to the right

Immediately after President Clinton announced the creation of the rivers initiative, the Council on Environmental Quality, which advises the president on environmental policy, conducted public hearings nationwide and polled dozens of river advocacy groups. Unanimously, river groups said a confusing federal bureaucracy prevented them from finding technical and financial help.

Many people were unaware that federal assistance programs even existed. What they needed was help from a "live body" who had federal expertise and knowledge of local river issues.

The council conceived the river navigator to fill this niche, and it was right on the mark, says Lynda Bourque Moss, with the Billings, Mont., Yellowstone Heritage Partnership. "The river navigator is a near twin to the circuit rider we envisioned several years ago," says Moss, who nominated the Yellowstone River for heritage status last fall.

But some critics say that the initiative, created by executive order, was an end-run around Congress after lawmakers repeatedly shot down previous legislation that included the word "heritage' - even though the bills bore no relationship to the Rivers Initiative. Others misidentified the initiative as a relative of the United Nations' "World Heritage" program that gives places like the U.S./Canadian Glacier/Waterton National Park international recognition.

Dave Skinner with People for the U.S.A. (formerly People for the West) in Pueblo, Colo., says the initiative would deepen the West's dependence on federal money, creating a pork-barrel program that taxpayers will be forced to finance.

People for the U.S.A. and another property-rights group, Liberty Matters, posted alerts on their Web sites and rallied a media campaign against the initiative. Liberty Matters boasted 30,000 hits on its Web site in December alone, a site that contains advice on how to mobilize opposition and "steal the thunder from the initiative."

Lawmakers damn initiative river by river

On Dec. 10, the same day 126 American Heritage River nominations were delivered to Capitol Hill, the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit to kill the initiative. The suit was filed on behalf of Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, Richard Pombo, R-Calif., Don Young, R-Alaska, and Bob Schaffer, R-Colo., and claimed that the initiative violated the Constitution, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in early March on the grounds that the congressional members who filed it would not be hurt by the rivers initiative. Nevertheless, by opposing nominations within their districts, Republican lawmakers have vetoed eight rivers and stretches of numerous others.

Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith vetoed Oregon's Willamette and part of the Columbia River. New Mexico Rep. Joe Skeen cut the Rio Grande nomination in half, and Brian Shields, spokesman for the Taos-based river advocacy group, Rios Bravos, predicts Rep. Bill Redmond will soon veto the rest of the New Mexican stretch of the Rio Grande.

In the Northern Rockies, Wyoming Rep. Barbara Cubin joined with Rep. Rick Hill and Sen. Conrad Burns, both from Montana, to remove most of the Yellowstone River from consideration. Moss of the Yellowstone Heritage Partnership is still pushing for American Heritage designation for the Yellowstone, but it's an upstream battle, she says. A March visit from Council on Environmental Quality spokesman Ray Clark met vocal opposition, while protesters carrying signs reading, "The water doesn't belong to the Feds!" rallied outside the Western Heritage Center museum in Billings.

Navigating stormy waters

As April approaches, the month President Clinton is scheduled to announce the first 10 heritage river designations, only a handful of Western rivers are still in the running.

Among them is Colorado's South Platte River. "The principal city in the West (Denver)," says Tom Cassidy, general counsel for American Rivers, "is not afraid of United Nations' black helicopters or a federal Big Brother."

Since 1995, the city of Denver has invested nearly $40 million to restore wildlife habitat and revitalize neighborhoods along the South Platte. In coordination with neighboring counties, Denver hopes to acquire $17 million through the American Heritage program to complete restoration and improve upon projects already completed.

Still, Denver Mayor Wellington Webb says his city would terminate heritage designation if the initiative threatens water or private property rights. "We want to be sure that the river navigator is not a river czar," said Denver lawyer David Howlett, a member of Webb's task force that nominated the South Platte.

To Andrew Wallach, director of the South Platte Corridor Project, "The initiative is not the end-all, be-all of environmental legislation. But it will help us finish what we started on our own."

JT Thomas is an HCN intern. Greg Hanscom is HCN assistant editor.

You can contact ...

* Kathleen McGinty, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Room 360, Old Executive Office Bldg., Washington, DC 20501 (202/395-5750);

* The American Heritage Rivers Web site: www.epa.gov/rivers;

* American Rivers, 1025 Vermont Ave. NW, Suite 720, Washington, DC 20005 (202/547-6900). www.amrivers.org;

* Mountain States Legal Foundation, 707 17th St., Suite 3030, Denver, CO 80202 (303/292-2021).

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