White River’s Blueway designation prompts backlash

Amid a public backlash, several conservation groups and state agencies no longer want the White River to be part of a new federal program that recognizes conservation and recreation efforts along waterways.

They say concerns that the National Blueway designation for the 700-plus-mile river that flows through southern Missouri and parts of Arkansas could lead to new regulations are unfounded, but still plan to send letters this coming week to the Interior Department asking that it be taken away.

Groups on both side of the issue agree that it’s the right thing to do. Opponents say the designation, given in January, could lead to new regulations or land seizures, while one-time backers say the controversy could make landowners resistant to voluntarily cooperating with conservation efforts.

“Too many people are upset,” said David Casaletto, president and executive director for Kimberling City, Mo.-based Ozark Water Watch. “This was like getting a gold star if you did a good job. It was recognition. If people are upset and don’t want it, let’s get rid of it.”

The National Blueways System was created in 2012 and is part of President Barack Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, a program intended to promote outdoor recreation in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands. The designation doesn’t bring a protective status or enforce regulations.

The White River, popular for fishing and boating, was the second waterway to be named a National Blueway; the 410-mile long Connecticut River was the first. The designation includes the entire river as well as its watershed – 17.9 million acres for the White River.

Casaletto acknowledged that there had been communication missteps. A group in the lower part of the White River basin had initially pursued the designation.

“The political people – the local county-level, state-level, even some of the federal level people – didn’t know about it, and certainly not the man on the street,” he said. “There were no public meetings. Even a lot of the watershed environmental groups, a lot of them didn’t know what it was about.”

Backers had also hoped it would position the river to be first in line for federal grants, thought it doesn’t automatically bring in new money.

“So the downside of the drama and the controversy is if this designation doesn’t stick, this basin in Arkansas and Missouri will lose out on opportunities for funding for good projects to happen,” said Todd Sampsell, the Missouri state director for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy.

Conservative group Secure Arkansas was among those that raised concerns about the designation after the fact.

Jeannie Burlsworth, the group’s founder and chairwoman, said the initial application sets conservation goals for the area, such as restoring forestland near the river. She said there also were concerns that the designation would lead to stricter enforcement of existing laws.

“There were just many things that alarmed everybody,” she said.

Concerns also have cropped up in Wyoming, where the state’s congressional delegation said that if the Yellowstone River were named a Blueway, the designation could limit the river’s use.

In response to the White River pushback, a coalition of Republican U.S. senators and representatives from Missouri and Arkansas sent a letter Wednesday to the Interior Department expressing concerns and asking about the process for revoking the designation.

“We’re working together to do what we can to reverse this new creation by the Department of Interior that is not legislatively created, never been designate anywhere before, until this administration decided that we can have National Blueway that they say won’t have any impact,” Missouri U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt said Thursday during a conference call with reporters. “If they won’t have any impact, why are we doing this?”

At an Arkansas legislative hearing Wednesday, several state agencies said the Blueway designation could make it more difficult to engage in conservation efforts with landowners. Arkansas Natural Resources Commission Executive Director Randy Young said he would ask the Interior Department to lift the designation, at least until landowners can be satisfied that their interests won’t be harmed.

Nancy Ledbetter, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said Friday that her agency and five other Arkansas agencies were signing onto a letter that would be sent Monday to the U.S. Interior Department.

And Casaletto said non-governmental organizations who once backed the Blueway designation also are putting together a letter.

Interior Department spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said in an email that the agency was aware that the agencies and groups that nominated the White River intend to ask that the Blueway designation be stripped.

“If that request is received, Interior will act expeditiously upon it,” she wrote.