3 agencies reverse course on Blueway
Legislators hear of public backlash
SARAH D. WIRE
A public outcry that the federal government will seize private property near the White River caused three state agencies Wednesday to backpedal on their support for designation of the river as a National Blueway.
The watershed received the conservation-related designation in January, but concerns over the practical effect of the honor rose in the past few weeks, fed in large part by a conservative group opposing the Blueway, Secure Arkansas, and landowners who say they weren’t consulted about goals set in the application.
“This looks like to us that they’re putting habitat over human,” the group’s chairman, Jeannie Burlsworth, said. The House and Senate Committees on City, County and Local Affairs heard testimony from state and federal groups and officials for 4 ½ hours Wednesday afternoon.
The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas Waterways Commission, along with the Nature Conservancy and Ozark Water Watch, announced at the meeting that their support of the designation could impede work on conservation matters because landowners are wary of new federal regulations.
“We like the recognition and the prestigiousness, but it’s not worth the sacrificing our ability and capacity to work with private landowners,” Game and Fish Commission Deputy Director Mike Armstrong said. “We didn’t foresee the backlash, I’ll be honest with you.”
Each group said it still thinks the Blueway designation is best for the region because it will encourage agencies to work together and make the White River more competitive for federally funded projects, such as its two trout hatcheries that supply the river with fish. Armstrong said the hatcheries have consistently been underfunded.
“I think that the federal government would have been embarrassed had they allowed these two hatcheries to lapse and go underfunded in a designation that they brought to focus attention to good collaboration and good watershed management,” Armstrong said.
Natural Resources Commission Executive Director Randy Young said that within the next two weeks the organizations will either ask the federal Department of the Interior to remove the designation permanently or temporarily until they can soothe fears and answer landowners’ questions.
The watershed was nominated by the National Wildlife Refuge Association in Washington, D.C., but the nomination was supported by dozens of other groups such as Ducks Unlimited, the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department, the state Forestry Commission as well as the towns of Clarendon and Augusta and two small businesses. Young said other groups supporting the designation may also need to pull support.
The White River flows more than 700 miles from its headwaters in the Ozarks of Missouri to its mouth at the Mississippi River. The designation includes a portion of Missouri.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge manager Keith Weaver told committee members that the designation has no effect on property rights in the watershed, which makes up about one-third of the land in Arkansas. The order creating the Blueway program states that it is not intended to affect the use of private property, and the federal government has said repeatedly that the designation creates no new laws or regulations.
Instead the Blueway designation was created to encourage local communities to work with state and federal agencies on conservation, Weaver said.
That hasn’t calmed fears so far. Prompted by Secure Arkansas, quorum courts in 12 counties have passed resolutions opposing the Blueway designation. Lawmakers told the at least 100 people packed in a committee room at the Capitol on Wednesday that they first learned of the designation when the Interior Department announced it in January.
When Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, suggested having the designation put on hold until the public becomes more comfortable or having it withdrawn completely, attendees yelled out their preference.
“Withdrawn, withdrawn,” they chanted.
Also Wednesday, members of the Arkansas and Missouri congressional delegations asked Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to answer questions about the Blueway program.
Burlsworth said after the meeting that county officials should have been allowed to weigh in. She said the initial application sets conservation goals for the area, such as returning some land to seasonal flooding and restoring forestland near the river, that aren’t supported by landowners.
“They felt like they could just give the order and it [would] just be obeyed and everybody fall in line,” Burlsworth said. “The public has been burned and it is going to stop.”
Weaver said landowners could choose to meet those goals, but the federal government wasn’t going to force them to comply.
The Arkansas Farm Bureau was seeking answers to its concerns about the Blueway designation, but hadn’t taken a position, bureau rural development coordinator Beau Bishop said.