Clinton's River Grab

by D. Dowd Muska

n his State of the Union speech in February, President Clinton briefly mentioned a new federal environmental program. Upon completing a self-congratulatory list of his administration’s environmental achievements, Clinton said there was more work to be done: "Tonight, I announce that this year I will designate 10 American Heritage Rivers, to help communities alongside them revitalize their waterfronts and clean up pollution."

At the time the President was characteristically short on details regarding "American Heritage Rivers." Specifics came only later, when the announcement of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI) was printed in the Federal Register on May 19. And as is usually the case with the Clinton administration, "we’re here from the government to help you" rhetoric replaced threatening bureaucrat-speak. According to the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the initiative had been designed to "help … communities restore and protect their river services … through better use of existing programs ... in a manner designed by the community." In 1997 the president will designate 10 rivers to "receive special recognition and focused federal support." Only local communities, the administration says, can nominate their rivers for recognition, and the federal government will merely work within existing "partnerships."

The AHRI is in many ways the result of lobbying efforts by American Rivers, a Washington, D.C. based environmental organization. American Rivers maintains an annual list of what it claims are the country’s "most endangered and threatened rivers," and since the announcement of the AHRI the organization has shamelessly served as a public relations firm for Clinton’s proposal. The websites of American Rivers and the AHRI (which is maintained by the EPA) are so interconnected it’s difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. American Rivers also issues regular press releases announcing high profile endorsements of the AHRI.

Jerking its collective knee in typical fashion, the environmental left quickly fell in line behind the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. Activists—particularly those from watershed organizations—reached new lows of sycophancy in their endorsements. "We praise the President for his environmental vision," beamed Whitty Sanford of the Connecticut River Watershed Council. "This initiative by President Clinton," added Chattanooga River Watershed Coalition Executive Director Buzz Williams, "is especially timely for the rivers of the southern Appalachians which are currently under siege by development." Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission Executive Director Ted Strong, echoing the eco-religious rhetoric of Al Gore and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, waxed metaphysical: "Rivers shaped our landscape in the same way that water shaped our human values: with power, beauty, and spiritual guidance."

Dr. Jan B. Hansen of the Minnesota River Basin Joint Powers Board harkened back to the ’96 campaign, offering this assessment: "Let’s make sure the bridge to the next century crosses a clean river." Katie Barrett of the Fore River Watershed Association probably expressed the view of most of her fellow activists when she encouraged the government "to expand the proposal to include all rivers." On June 24, the U.S Conference of Mayors approved a resolution supporting the AHRI.

But before the administration had a chance to finalize its plan, the proposal hit a snag. After it was revealed that public comments on the program would be taken for a mere 21 days, property rights groups went to war. They didn’t buy the administration’s assertions that the program would not require new regulations, nor would it need more federal dollars. David Almasi of Defenders of Property Rights noted that since 13 federal departments and agencies are slated to provide services under the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, the administration’s no-cost, no-regulation assertions were bogus. "A federal program without regulations that wouldn’t cost the taxpayers more money?" asked Glenna Hodge, a legislative assistant to Texas State Representative Bob Turner. "Do you think we’re fools, Mr. President?" Almasi further concluded the scope of the new federal program was potentially massive—if, for example, the president selected the Mississippi as an "American Heritage River," 40 percent of the continental United States would come under the program’s jurisdiction.

Opponents pressed their case to Congress, and in early June the chairmen of six House committees and subcommittees requested a 90-day extension for public comment on the AHRI. In addition, Alaska Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Resources Committee, scheduled an oversight hearing. "We’re not going to let the administration sneak this major proposal through the system without the proper public participation and Congressional oversight," he said. Annoyed at what they perceived to be a done deal, AHRI boosters scoffed at objectors. "The anti-environmental lobby seems to have discovered a new poster child," said Tom Cassidy, general counsel of American Rivers. CEQ chair Katy McGinty was "bewildered and perplexed" by the level of criticism—but the White House bowed to the pressure anyway and extended the AHRI public comment period to August 20. The White House also sent both McGinty and Babbitt up to the Hill to testify before Young’s committee on July 15.

Administration officials met stiff resistance at the hearing. In his opening comments, Rep. James Hansen of Utah—still smarting from Clinton’s declaration of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in his home state last year—lashed out at "this administration’s arrogance and abuse of unilateral presidential actions." Washington Rep. Linda Smith went on to pin down Babbitt on funding issues. Why, she asked, was the administration pushing a new program when the secretary constantly appeared before congressional committees to plead poverty for existing federal land management programs? In response, Babbitt said the money would be found in current programs, and if necessary, he would take current employees off "phone duty" to devote time to AHRI-related tasks.

For several committee members, that was enough. Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth of Idaho introduced a bill to kill the American Heritage Rivers Initiative, calling it "the most recent assault by the Clinton administration on private property rights, states’ rights and western values." "There is a clear pattern of this administration ramroding its ideas through, despite the interests and concerns of people in the West," added Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons, one of 11 co-sponsors. H.R. 1842’s language is unambiguous: "None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available to a Federal agency … may be used to develop, implement, or carry out the American Heritage Rivers Initiative."

But since it’s unlikely both houses of Congress will vote to kill such a benign-sounding program by veto-proof majorities, the American Heritage Rivers Initiative is likely to become a reality. Clinton may sign an order to enact the AHRI at any point after the public comment period concludes.

Property rights groups have every intention of closely watching AHRI implementation. "The Clinton administration hasn’t given … any reason to believe [the AHRI] won’t lead to further regulations down the road," said Almasi. Such speculation seems more credible in light of McGinty’s refusal to prohibit AHRI bureaucrats from attempting to influence local zoning rules in recognized rivers.

"When it comes to land use policy," noted Almasi, "trust is not a commodity [the Clinton] administration possesses in abundance." While the promises of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative to "help" communities clean up their rivers may make the environmental left swoon—and seduce big city mayors—the administration’s proposal probably won’t live up to the friendly "partnership" envisioned by bureaucrats. The AHRI may not be the Constitution trampling abomination opponents say it is, but it is clearly another step toward greater federal land use restrictions. That’s a step the nation doesn’t need to take. u

D. Dowd Muska is a contributing editor of Nevada Journal. He can be reached at ddowdmuska@aol.com.


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