Maelstrom Of Opposition Hurts 'Heritage Rivers' Plan
By Charles Pope, CQ Staff Writer
The idea, as conceived by President Clinton's aides and announced during the 1997 State of the Union address, was modest and seemingly unsinkable -- a beauty pageant for rivers that would swell local pride, boost homegrown conservation efforts and cost the federal government no additional money.
But so far, the sailing for the American Heritage Rivers Initiative has been anything but calm. There has been legislation to kill the effort, a federal lawsuit to declare it unconstitutional, and constant suggestions that the program is, as Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, has said, "a bold and shocking attempt by the administration to usurp individual water rights, private property rights and state sovereignty."
The most recent turmoil erupted May 11 and 12, as a presidential advisory committee sifted through 100 nominees offered for official designation as an American Heritage River. The work was made easier because 26 applications were withdrawn in the face of objections from members of Congress.
The objections were as diverse as the rivers themselves, ranging from constitutional concerns (federal funds might be used that were not explicitly authorized) to more general distrust of government.
"Rather than continue local control, it could subvert local control," said Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore.
Oregon citizens are particularly sensitive to such suggestions because "our state has a sorry history of federal dominance," he said.
Smith followed through on his concern, vetoing a section of the Willamette River from being considered for the designation. And Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Colo., made sure that the Gunnison River in Colorado was removed from consideration as well.
Among the other rivers removed because of congressional vetoes were the Upper Rio Grande in New Mexico; the Arkansas River in Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Kansas; the French Broad River in North Carolina; and the Missouri River through Montana, Missouri, Nebraska and South Dakota.
The opposition did not stop there. Since its inception, the American Heritage Rivers Initiative has been notable, not for new policies but for the vehemence of its critics.
"It's shocking; I don't understand it. We've tried to be very accommodating," said an official at the President's Council on Environmental Quality, which helped conceive the program.
That's one view. Another prominent view, held by some members of Congress and property rights advocates, portrays the program as a thinly veiled attempt by the federal government to usurp local control over land use.
"Everybody knows that no matter how much the wording is watered down, the . . . program is designed to bring the National Park Service into local zoning, and to transfer land ownership to government," Carol W. LaGrasse, president of Property Rights Foundation of America Inc., said during a House hearing in September 1997.
A Voluntary Program
The administration has been stressing from the very start that the program is entirely voluntary and locally driven. According to the guidelines, any community could submit a detailed plan for restoring and protecting the environmental, economic and cultural values of its river and riverfront. "A community plan could aim to clean up pollution, attract businesses, improve flood protection, protect farm land . . . or promote new economic opportunities," the guidelines said.
The White House had hoped to provide an easy path to designate Heritage Rivers. Congressional approval is not necessary because money is used from existing programs. And it differed from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act of 1968 (PL 90-542) which imposes stricter requirements for eligibility.
In a hearing before the House Resources Committee in September 1997, the chairwoman of the Council on Environmental Quality, Kathleen A. McGinty, was explicit: "The American Heritage Rivers Initiative will not conflict with matters of state and local government jurisdiction, such as water rights, land use planning and water quality standards."
Clinton aides also pointed out that support in Congress is overwhelmingly in favor of the initiative and includes such Republicans as Sens. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York, Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as well as dozens of House members.
Yet even with such support, the American Heritage Rivers Initiative has been caught in a relentless storm, underscoring the treacherous politics that accompany even the most narrowly drawn environmental initiatives.
"We don't even know exactly what it is they are going to do with this program. How much money are they (the administration) going to spend on it?" asked Rep. Richard W. Pombo, R-Calif., one of the loudest critics.
"Are they going to show up at every . . . board of supervisors meeting and support or oppose land use restrictions? Pombo said.
Amid this melee, the presidential committee must select 20 finalists from the 100 applications. Those finalists will be forwarded to Clinton, who will select the 10 winners. All of this was supposed to be completed by the end of 1997, but the committee has asked for another month to finish its work. An administration official said he did not know how long Clinton would take to select the 10 rivers.
Sponsors and supporters of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative are surprised by the opposition. In contrast to other recent environmental endeavors that were widely acknowledged as controversial, the initiative creates no new programs, imposes no new federal mandates and does not diminish local control, supporters said. All it does, they said, is draw attention to worthwhile efforts and provide a federal official, called a "river navigator," to help local officials maneuver through the bureaucracy to tap funds from existing programs.
"It's been disappointing to see the vociferousness of these ideological attacks that are really unrelated to the merits," said Tom Cassidy, general counsel for American Rivers, an environmental group that supports the program.
Cassidy and other backers are particularly angered because the program has earned broad endorsement outside of Washington from such groups as the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
"A lot of people in Congress are lost in an ideological fog," Cassidy said. "When I talk to mayors . . . they really aren't worried about black [government] helicopters landing in their backyards. They're worried about how can they make their community a better place, and they like the idea of the federal government being a better partner. They are not worried about federal government controlling the local decisions."
Terminate the Program?
Chenoweth, supported by 49 co-sponsors, mostly from the West, introduced a bill (HR1842) June 10, 1997, to "terminate further development and implementation of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative."
The bill was approved by the Resources Committee on Nov. 5, 1997, and Chenoweth hopes it will come to the House floor this summer.
If it fails, Chenoweth is pinning her hopes on the courts. She filed suit to stop the program in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Dec. 10, 1997, the deadline for communities to submit their applications for the Heritage program. The court ruled against her, and the case is now on appeal.
That may be her last hope. Cassidy and others doubt the Republican leadership will allow Chenoweth's bill to come to the floor because of the potential backlash. That likelihood cannot be underestimated.
"This bill gives the government a great deal of power," said Chenoweth spokesman Chad Hyslop. "The administration claims there will be no new rules or regulations, but frankly, we don't trust them."
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