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A Brief Introduction
American Heritage Rivers
A Saccharine Incarnation of the National Heritage Area Program

Although the National (or American) Heritage Area program was publicly downplayed in importance by environmentalists, they and historical preservationists placed highest priority on its passage during the three consecutive immediately past years of the Democratic, then Republican, Congress. When their push failed in 1996 because of the counter-efforts of the nation-wide grassroots property rights movement, Congress passed nine more individual National Heritage Areas, in the omnibus National Parks bill, plus one new Area in Colorado, separately, making the current total sixteen.

By and large, the National Heritage Areas are wide strips of land along rivers that are to be the subject of federal preservation efforts in conjunction with a regional state or federal commission that signs a "management contract" with the National Park Service. The Areas are touted for "tourism," "recreation," and "economic development."

The new National Hudson Valley Heritage Area in New York, for instance, encompasses much of ten counties that are already under the jurisdiction of New York State's Hudson River Valley Greenway Communities Council. The area, which is the focus of State regional planning pressures, extends northward from the New York city line to the Albany area.

The American Heritage Rivers program is, for all practical purposes, the same program pronounced unilaterally with a heavy dose of double-speak by the Administration without Congressional participation.

In his State of the Union address, President Clinton announced that he would designate ten American Heritage Rivers in 1997. In April and May joint interagency meetings with environmentalists were quietly called around the country to solidify a constituency. On May 19, the President's Council on Environmental Quality issued a proclamation in the Federal Resister describing the program as an administrative fait accompli and inviting input, but not debate over whether to have the program. The Council requested nominations for the ten American Heritage Rivers.

Comments were originally due by June 9 at: Executive Office of the President, Council on Environmental Quality, Old Executive Office Building, Room 360, Washington, DC 20501 (FAX:202-456-6546). The comment period has been extended to August 20, 1997. Further official information is available from Karen Hobbs at her phone 202-395-7417.

The official announcement states, "These designated rivers will receive special recognition and focused federal support and will serve as models of the most innovative, economically successful and ecologically sustainable approaches to river restoration and protection for communities across the United States."

The program alleges to be non-regulatory to "support communities (...known as River Communities), within existing laws and regulations."

The Rivers program is part of Vice President Gore's efforts to "reinvent government in accordance with the National Performance Review." Some Rivers will have "Performance-Based Organizations" which allow "flexibility" to meet "performance-based goals."

The rivers will be the focus of "Coordinated Delivery of Services" and each will have a "caseworker" known as a "River Navigator" who works with an interagency task force and is to be a "single contact" for all federal agencies. The verbose pronouncement does not make clear whether this restriction of contact scheme could restrict all federal-state/local interrelationships.

Katie McGinty, director of the Council on Environmental Quality, stated in June that the River Navigator is merely an ombudsman to help deal with federal agencies. Asked why a designation as a American Heritage River is necessary to receive the supposed benefit of this ombudsman, she replied that people want the designation. She also said, however, that she did not support any across-the-board reductions proposed in Congress for federal wetlands or endangered species regulations.

All federal agencies are said to commit to a "Good Neighbor Policy" to "ensure that their actions have positive effect on the natural, historical, economic and cultural resources of American River Communities."

"Planning assistance" available via a "talent bank" is emphasized. "Environmental monitoring" with a "report card" on river conditions is a centerpiece of the program.

Among the services provided by the feds are a "State of the Rivers" Home Page on Internet for status of pollution, population, and land-use planning. One wonders if the Home Page is intended to publish allegations as exaggerated as those on the many "state-of-whatever" reports.

An application procedure is described, but it can be assumed that the ten Rivers to be designated are already selected so that the program momentum is unobstructed. One known target is the James River in Virginia.

Ray Clark, a spokesman for the Rivers program at the Council on Environmental Quality, said that the Council had no written policy statement about the basis on which the program is undertaken but that it is authorized under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) Section 101b.4. This broad provision (about preserving "historical, cultural and natural" heritage) pertains, as does NEPA generally, to analyzing the impact of federal government programs; it is not a directive to add a new program.

The American Heritage Rivers program is a major bureaucratic step to involve the Council on Environmental Quality in land-use controls of the nature handed down by the National Park Service, National Forest Service, Department of State, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies.

Since the program has no legislative authorization and is on that basis also unconstitutional, Congress should deny funding for it. No environmental assessment required under NEPA has been undertaken, making the Rivers program vulnerable to NEPA litigation under this broad federal legislation which, by the way, was passed during the Nixon Administration in conjunction with the establishment of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Carol W. LaGrasse
June 18, 1997

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