In January of this year, the White River was named a National Blueway. Six months later, in the wake of a massive public outcry, the designation was rescinded. A look back at why a largely honorific designation was sunk—and the ensuing controversy carried to the steps of the nation’s Capitol
There’s the sensation of descending into the river as you walk what’s really a gangplank of sorts down the dock—as if you were on the verge of being sucked down deep into the waters of the White. And on a dreary Tuesday evening, just about a half hour after the Norfork Trout Dock has closed for the day, there’s still more water. There’s water coming down in coin-sized dollops, pelting the windows of a place that, with a dozen fishing poles propped behind the door, and baits, lures, flies and weights hung from most every inch of the wall beside the counter, smells like a structure floating on the river should smell. With the surroundings, the furniture broken in years before, photos of family, photos when the river has raged and erupted unruly and pitched the dock onto the banks, there’s some sense of immutability in the air.
As if this place had stood forever and would stand forever as well, absolutely at home in the evening’s inundation. Mike Harrison, the proprietor whose name has been tacked onto a board listing the prices for lodging and guides, has blue eyes edged with water. He’s a man who seems as though he’s been here just as long, and will continue to stand the test of time.
But, of course, anything can change. The reason we’re speaking this afternoon is because the river just outside the window, being upset and churned by rain and hail, earlier this year had been named a National Blueway, a program established by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Though to look at it, nothing has changed. Which might explain why it is that when two guides asked him in April, “Have you heard about this Blueway thing?” he didn’t have an answer, and could only reply, “No, what’s that?”
Eight months earlier, in mid-January, there had been cause for celebration. The rounds of applause that sprung and echoed wall-to-wall were hearty, bipartisan and overwhelmingly positive. It was, for all intents and purposes, the sort of things PR flaks are wont to dream of—celebratory, cross-the-aisle “slam dunks.” An article from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette detailing the events of the designation’s unveiling at the Peabody Hotel quoted Rep. Tim Griffin as saying it was “an example of the federal government being led by local folks … You are making sure the White River will remain a resource for my 2-year-old and 5-year-old for decades to come.”
The reason was this: “Across the Nation,” read the Department of Interior’s Secretarial Order mandating the program, “communities of stakeholders have formed partnerships focused on stewardship and sustainability for rivers and their watersheds. When these partnerships work successfully across Federal agencies, with state, local and tribal governments, and with nonprofit organizations, private landowners and businesses, they are able to accomplish their shared stewardship and conservation objectives … National Blueways will be nationally and regionally significant rivers, and their watersheds that are highly valued recreational, social, economic, cultural and ecological assets for the communities that depend on them.”
Although the designation was largely honorific, as only the second National Blueway (the first being the Connecticut River and its watershed, which had been named as such when the Secretarial Order was signed in May 2012), the White River stood to benefit immensely, and the potential for what such a program could achieve seemed boundless.
The designation paved the pathway for new partnerships, strengthened old ones, added more focus on conservation efforts across the board. It was a pass to the front of the line for institutions hoping to secure federal dollars. A boon for tourism. It opened the door for national recognition of the 18 million acres of watershed spanned by the river, 700 miles from its headwaters in the Missouri Ozarks to the mouth of the Mississippi, and there was something impressive and regal sounding in that title of “National Blueway.” It seemed, as folks familiar with the proceedings suggested, that it had been seen as a “slam dunk.” The sort of proceedings which, like a precocious toddler, can set on its feet and stand firm without risk of falling as the parent leaves the room.
But of course, that wasn’t the case. It wasn’t long after the ticker tape had settled that eyebrows started to raise. The fact of the matter is the designation had come almost—and you’ll have to forgive the pun—out of the blue. Despite its characterization as a locally inspired plan (26 diverse stakeholders—federal, state and local government, non-governmental organizations and two local businesses—had supported the nomination), it became clear that most of the “local” side of that equation seemed unaware of its involvement. With passages like, “Nothing in this Order is intended to authorize or affect the use of private property,” it was only a matter of time before sections of the Secretarial Order and the nomination were being picked apart and examined for loopholes. Before something filled those voids of information.
“Help Oppose the Destruction of our Heartland!” appeared midway through May on the front page of the conservative website Secure Arkansas. Although the posting itself was rather lengthy, the thesis, quite clearly stated in the first paragraph—“While this may sound warm and fuzzy, it actually outlines the destruction of private land ownership and the rise of the future estate of the Federal government!”—was unwavering in its certitude that this threat to the nation needed to be stopped. The target was the National Blueways System. Although much of what it suggested seemed to lack grounding in fact, there was little doubting the appeal it might hold for someone looking for answers.
A few months later, following the testimony given by state and federal groups at the House and Senate Committees on City, County and Local Affairs, things were falling apart. “The Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas Waterways Commission, along with 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,” according to an account from the Democrat-Gazette. The same day, a letter was issued by nine members of the U.S. Congress from Missouri and Arkansas requesting additional information to resolve the vagaries concerning private property and a “variety of other ambiguities.”
Two days later, Arkansas Game and Fish issued a seven-line letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, stating that while the recognition was “a great honor for the State of Arkansas, the conflicts and controversy surrounding the designation are such that we must respectfully request that you remove the National Blueway designation from the White River.” The sentiment—that the designation was good for the region but could cause impediments for conservation efforts due to the public backlash that had taken the form of county quorum courts up and down the river voting against it—seemed to be widely held. No matter what, the bell had been rung, and there was no hope of a reversal of the tide.
On July 3, the designation was rescinded.
“We have heard a lot today about how this program might lead to certain things—might be interpreted certain ways—could have certain effects that could lead to other effects. And I’d like to dial this back in to what has actually occurred thus far in the real world,” said California Congressman Jared Huffman during a congressional hearing of the Subcommittee on Water and Power on July 17. Sparked by the outcry prompted by the White’s designation, the hearing had been called to hear testimony on the designation and communities affected.
Although the overwhelming majority of testimony (with the notable exception of one panelist from North Carolina) fell squarely in the camp accusing the Blueway of government overreach and worrying over possible ramifications of vague and open-ended language, there was one five minute window during which Huffman launched into a series of questions asking about the program—specifically about the effects the program had had on property rights, water rights, recreation, access to a watershed and so forth.
“It’s kind of interesting,” the congressman continued, “that we’ve had an entirely hypothetical discussion here today about a program that, frankly, has been paused, even though it hasn’t had any of the effects that folks have raised concerns [about]; but has nevertheless been paused so that there can be even extra considerations given to make sure that it is compatible with all the different stakeholders in these watersheds.”
Most of the proceedings had dealt largely with hypothetical situations and phantoms of encroachment for which there were only the most tenuous of reasons to consider. The only answer came when the Hon. Robert Griffin, a judge from Independence County, said that there was an implication there were broad powers that might be created, but when asked if any had been created, he admitted there had not been. Suspicion was not based on precedent, but on the lack of it, he said.
Although he only made passing mention of it during the proceedings, Griffin seemed to capture the sentiment when he invoked the timeless words of “Cool Hand Luke”— “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
In watching the recorded proceedings, it’s difficult not be reminded of the sort of back-and-forth that seems to bubble up between two people when they’re really talking about something else; how it’s never just about a set of misplaced keys or failure to notice a change in appearance. They’re the sort of conflicts used as proxies for deep-seated issues amplifying minor disputes into major obstacles. Such was the case here. Even if it was about conservation and making sure that the land was protected and rights were protected, it was more than that. In every examination of the documents for loopholes and potential overreach, there’s the assumption that the government, if left an inch, will take a mile.
Leaning on the counter, as the rain comes down, Mike talks about the Buffalo River.He talks about how his uncle’s property, a little white house about a hundred yards off the river, was condemned as the Buffalo was made the country’s first National River in March 1972. In the same breath, he talks about his grandfather’s land, which is now at the bottom of Norfork Lake, bought, he says, for $1 an acre.
Ultimately, this is why it’s not altogether difficult to imagine why Mike, on this rainy evening, feels how he does. When you consider that information never filtered all the way down, that whatever public forums normally used to disperse and discuss information never happened, that folks like Mike and his family have been adversely impacted by government overreach in the past, it’s not difficult to understand the threat that a lack of information can pose, even to something so innocuous and ostensibly beneficial as the Blueway system.
Down the road is Les Stevens, owner of PJ’s Lodge, whom I speak with a few days later. He sums up local sentiment best when he says, “Look, there’s extremists on both sides of probably every issue out there. And somewhere like a pendulum swing, somewhere in the middle, is the norm or the truth or whatever you want to call it.
“My whole 5,000-foot-looking-down-sort-of view of this is this the way democracy is supposed to work—the system actually worked here. Where once the public was an informed public, the public got a hold of its representatives and said, ‘No, we do not want you to vote for this, we want it repealed,’ and it was repealed. And, by golly, we may see parts of our system that have broken off here and there, but basically the engine is still running. I think it’s a positive story. I think the cynicism is healthy, but I also think that the way it played also proves that it’s still a healthy system.”
As time has worn on, there have been more hearings—another before the Subcommittee on Water and Power entitled “Stopping Federal Land and Water Grabs: Protecting Property Rights from Washington, DC Edicts”; one for the state of Missouri in West Plains on July 29—and more letters and more frustration—though on the whole, the sentiment belied by each, regardless of political slant or position on the matter, is that the program was dead-in-the-water before it even started. Although the paranoia over government interference, which seemed to coagulate slowly over time before it burst, played no small role in the program’s fall from grace, there’s no denying that lack of foresight and the disconnect between the government and the governed was at the core. As Steve Wilson, former head of the AGFC, and in favor of the designation, put it to me as we sat in his home overlooking the river, “In my opinion, the department of the interior and all the partners violated everything they knew about public involvement on the front end.
“They kept it in a closed system until they made the announcement. Whereas, had they done what they know to do with public outreach and public involvement, they would have gathered all those stakeholders from the start and built from the grassroots the support for that. I don’t know whether the outcome would have been any different. Looking back, it would have depended on how effective they were at building those constituencies into the people who later on became very vocal and very afraid of this designation.”
The fate of the Blueway is currently uncertain—its present status is “paused.” This is the reason some groups continue to oppose it, while others, like a group in Minnesota clamoring for the program for the Minnesota River, continue to see its benefits. However, what seems true is that no matter where you stand, no matter what the ground might look like, the river will continue to flow, immutable as always. So long as we let it.