What should have been a nice pat on the back for the White River and its protectors has turned into a black eye for the state of Arkansas and a lost opportunity for tourism.
Thanks to a coalition of groups that included Ducks Unlimited, the Arkansas Canoe Club, Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, the Department of the Interior in January made the White River the second National Blueway.
The National Blueway program was established in November and is part of a federal effort to provide healthy rivers and watersheds. It recognizes community-driven conservation and a recreational agenda, with a goal to boost tourism, expand recreational opportunities and fuel local economies.
Unfortunately, the people who see conspiracies everywhere spotted one in this harmless designation given to the White River. They began ranting about “federal land grabs” and even accused the United Nations of being behind it all. (Who knew the U.N. controlled Arkansas Game & Fish, Ducks Unlimited and the Arkansas Canoe Club?)
It’s also worth noting the Connecticut River’s designation as a National Blueway in May 2012 did not cause any controversy. Only when the program tried to honor the White River was a conspiracy spotted.
The Department of the Interior tried to quell any fears. Interior tried to point out some facts about how private landowners do not have to participate in the program at all.
“The National Blueways System recognizes successful, long-standing, locally driven and locally supported efforts to sustain the many benefits of healthy river systems — nothing more and nothing less,” Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, told the Times Record. “According to the Secretarial Order, there is no legal impact to the rivers or surrounding private property.”
Such comments did not assuage the concerns of the paranoid, nor did they answer what might have been a more significant issue: the idea that the local elected officials were left out of the loop when Washington came to town.
Sebastian County Judge David Hudson said he thought the concern with the designation was related to a lack of public input and concern over personal property rights.
Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison said, “I am concerned about new federal spending on programs that are not essential at this time. I am also concerned that due process may not have been given to local governments. Make no mistake, we are conservationists and no one wants, or knows how, to protect our indigenous lands better than us.”
Two points worth mentioning here: A couple of Blueway signs aren’t really going to add significantly to the national debt. And the designation wouldn’t extend into Polk County.
Marcus Richmond, chairman of Scott County Republican Party of Arkansas and an opponent of the designation, said, “In the language of the bill, it says nothing is ‘intended’ to affect property owners, but there are restrictions that may make it difficult for private property owners to meet EPA and federal regulations, and they’d be charged a fee if they couldn’t meet them.”
“It’s not just the White River, it’s the whole watershed,” Richmond said further. “There are millions of acres along the river, a lot of which is private property and farms. Conservation is important, and we all need to be aware of it, but we can’t be forced off of our property if we can’t meet restrictions. There is a lack of definition, and people will be doing what they’ve always done and then find themselves in trouble.”
Instead of dismissing the complaints, the organizations behind the designation began backing off. Arkansas Game & Fish, among others, even asked for the designation to be dropped. Our congressional delegates joined the chorus, and then celebrated the Department of the Interior’s delisting the White River on July 1.
At some point, somebody should have stepped up to say the National Blueway award was not a nefarious plot and the Department of the Interior isn’t out to disenfranchise local elected officials.
If we don’t, we all look foolish. We certainly do for this White River kerfuffle.