American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Update and Hearing Summary on American Heritage Rivers Initiative (7-28-98)

In his 1997 State of the Union Address, President Clinton introduced the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. The program designates 10 rivers as American Heritage Rivers, ones that are historically, economically, and culturally important, through a process of nominations and recommendations made to the President by the American Heritage Rivers Interagency Committee and Advisory Committee. Once these rivers are chosen, the President's plan is for state, local, and federal cooperation to help clean up the rivers in an economically friendly way.

Most Recent Action
Vice President Gore announced the first American Hertigate Rivers sites on July 27. The designations will cover the Blackstone and Woonasquatucket Rivers (MA, RI), Connecticut River (in CT, VT, NH, MA), Cuyahoga River (OH), Detroit River (MI), Hanalei River (HI), Hudson River (NY), New River (NC, VA, WV), Rio Grande (TX), Potomac River (DC, MD, PA, VA, WV), St. Johns River (FL), Upper Mississippi River (IA, IL, MN, MO, WI), Lower Mississippi River (LA, TN), Upper Susquehanna and Lackawanna Rivers (PA), and Willamette River (OR).

In early July 1998, the House of Representatives included language in H.R. 4193, the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies appropriations bill for fiscal year 1999, stating that "these rivers must compete with all other areas requesting funds from existing programs...such as the River and Trails Conservation Assistance Program and the Urban and Community Forestry Program." The House Appropriations Committee directed that each agency involved in the Initiative report to the Committee by April 10, 1999 on "specifically what funds have been made available to each designated river and from which specific programs."

President Clinton announced in his Feb. 4, 1997 State of the Union Address that he would "...designate 10 American Heritage Rivers, to help communities alongside them revitalize their waterfronts and clean up pollution in the rivers, proving once again that we can grow the economy as we protect the environment." An interagency task force with the Center for Environmental Quality (CEQ) at the helm was established to develop the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. The agencies involved in the initiative include the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Interior, Justice, and Housing and Urban Development; the Environmental Protection Agency; Advisory Council on Historic Preservation; Army Corps of Engineers; and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On May 19, 1997, the CEQ published a description of the initiative and request for public comment in the Federal Register. The initiative has two components: (1) enhanced services and program delivery to designated rivers, and (2) improved delivery of services and information. A designated "River Community" receives support from all involved federal agencies and is assigned a "River Navigator" who acts as a link between the communities and the agencies. The interagency task force works with each community in developing their goals and strategy after which the federal agencies commit staff and resources to help implement the community developed plan.

The public comment period was to end June 20, 1997 but due to public concern regarding the effects of the American Heritage River designation on private property rights and water rights and possible increased Federal regulation, the House Resources Committee requested that the public comment period be extended 90 days to comply with the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). As a result the CEQ reissued the initiative in the June 20, 1997 Federal Register with a revised schedule and extended public comment period to August 20, 1997.

President Clinton signed an executive order on September 11, 1997 launching the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. During the announcement, President Clinton stated that many of the great cities of the U.S. became great because they were built on rivers and for them to become even better, "we have to make sure that the rivers that run through them are good, clean rivers." Communities have 90 days to submit restoration plans, after which time 10 finalists will be selected and designated American Heritage Rivers. The initiative is a means of rededicating "our country to restoring our river heritage and to reaffirm one of our oldest values, the importance of safeguarding our national treasures for all generations to come."

The objectives of the initiative include natural resource and environmental protection, economic revitalization, and historic and cultural preservation. Agencies involved in the initiative are to develop plans to support protection and restoration of river communities that are consistent with their goals, programs and functions. The role of the federal government is to support community-based efforts through a complementary role with state, local and tribal governments.

Either one or several communities working together can nominate a river, river stretch or river confluence. In the case of multiple communities, the restoration plan must detail the coordination of the communities and the role each will play. Individuals outside the community cannot nominate a river. The selection criteria are as follows:

The President established the American Heritage Rivers Interagency Committee to develop the guidelines for designation, review actions of agencies, report on progress made by the communities and terminate the designation upon request from the community. The committee will be co-chaired by the chair of the Center for Environmental Quality and a rotating agency representative. The committee will be made up of the following members or their designees: the Secretaries of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Transportation, and Energy, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Attorney General, chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The responsibilities and roles of involved federal agencies are as follows:

The President also established the American Heritage Rivers Initiative Advisory Committee, which consists of "a group of Americans with diverse expertise in the cultural, historical, environmental and economic importance of America's rivers" from the public and private sectors. The committee, which has met twice in the last two months, is chaired by Dayton R. Duncan, an author and writer/producer of documentary films from Walpole, New Hampshire. At its most recent meeting on June 16, 1998, the committee finalized the list of nominated rivers to be included in the report to the President. Ten rivers were recommended as American Heritage Rivers: Connecticut River, Detroit River, Hanalei River, Hudson River, New River, Rio Grande River, Potomac River, St. Johns River, Upper Mississippi River, and the Willamette River.

The American Heritage Rivers Initiative has environmental groups singing its praises, but not everyone is joining the chorus. While property and water rights have long been concerns raised in western states, farmers in the mid-west are voicing those and other concerns about more stringent monitoring requirements that could raise production costs. The Alliance for America, a coalition of grassroots organizations, is leading the pack of opponents of the initiative.

On October 22, 1997, the House Resources Committee passed H.R. 1842, a bill to prohibit federal funding for the American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI), by a 15-8 vote. The bill was introduced by Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) in June of 1997 and now has over 40 cosponsors. A year later, this subject is still drawing controversy. In fact, a recent hearing by the House Resources Committee on the impact of federal land-use policies on rural communities produced a heated discussion on the AHRI.

House Committee on Resources Hearing
June 9, 1998

The House Committee on Resources held a hearing on the impact of federal land use policies on rural communities. Representative Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) opened the hearing by welcoming the chance to hear testimony from the two panels on the local effects of current federal land management policies.

Panel I participant:
Mr. Ron Arnold, Executive Vice President, Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise
Mr. John Conely, President, Concerned Alaskans for Resources and Environment (CARE)
Mr. Y. Leon Favreau, President, Multiple Use Association
Mr. R. Edmund Gomez, National Commission on Small Farms
Mr. Hugh B. McKeen, New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association

Mr. Arnold introduced an in-depth study of federal policy and rural communities titled "Battered Communities: How Wealthy Private Foundations, Grant-Driven Environmental Groups, and Activist Federal Employees Combine to Systematically Cripple Rural Economies." On the growing prosperity gap between rural and urban communities, he stated that "while urban America today enjoys an economic boom, rural counties are finding themselves choked to death by federal restrictions." Referring to the report, Mr. Arnold discussed the undue influence of activist federal employees and grant-driven environmental programs "not designed by the environmental groups, but originating within grantmaking private foundations" in federal environmental policies. He closed by asking for continued investigation of the effects of federal policies on the rural communities.

Mr. Conely discussed the effects of the Tongass Timber Reform Act of 1990 on the local economy of Southeast Alaska. The act was intended "to provide increased environmental protection as well as a sustainable forest products industry." He expressed concern over mill closings in the region and the effects of increased funding of environmental groups by national foundations on the local economy. These tax-exempt environmental groups, according to Conley, are supporting a value-added timber industry, whereby a levy is added on each stage of production, but at the same time objecting to adequate harvest quantities to sustain this industry. In closing, Mr. Conley questioned the legality of attacks by tax-exempt environmental groups on the timber industry.

Mr. Favreau discussed the Northern Forest Stewardship Act, S. 546 and H.R. 971, which would protect the land and people in the primarily private forest lands of northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and eastern New York. He stressed the need for local hearings on this legislation. Many people in the timber industry do not support the act and do not want increased state or federal control over the private lands in the region.

Mr. Gomez and Mr. McKeen gave testimony on personal experience of farmers and ranchers in New Mexico dependent on public lands. Mr. Gomez opened by stating that "federal land use policy without community input may adversely affect the survival of rural communities in northern New Mexico."

Rep. John Peterson (R-PA) opened Q&A with a general question of how best to educate people on the issues of rural populations. Arnold and Favreau agreed on the need for more media coverage of rural issues. Rep. James Gibbons (R-NV) questioned the panel on whether they had noticed federal money being used for individual interests. Mr. Arnold responded that he was more concerned by the use of tax-exempt money for environmental interest groups than federal money. Rep. Chenoweth closed the first panel by restating the questionable actions of environmental interest groups brought up by Mr. Conely in his testimony.

Panel II participants:
Mr. Donald Wesson, Southern Pine Regional Director of Pulp & Paperworkers' Resource Council, McGehee, Arkansas
Honorable Mike Propes, Polk County Commissioner, Dallas, Oregon
Mr. Jack Richardson, Val Verde County Administration, Del Rio, Texas

Mr. Wesson began his testimony by expressing his concern over the nomination of the Mississippi River as part of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. Many in his community believe that if this area is designated an American Heritage River, land use zoning boards could be negated and landowners' sovereignty could be threatened. In addition, residents around the Mississippi seem weary of using a river navigator, as proposed by the initiative, because this navigator would tend to focus on preservation and thus, block industrial development of the river communities. Mr. Wesson concluded by urging the committee to halt the AHRI.

Mr. Propes commented that the Willamette and Columbia County portion of the Columbia have been proposed as American Heritage Rivers although there is a strong opposition within the surrounding communities. According to correspondence with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the American Heritage Rivers program is voluntary. Yet, Mr. Propes stated that these designations will occur even though local opposition exists. Other counties have asked to be excluded from the program until more information becomes available. But, local officials have received no response on the financial benefits and potential consequences of this initiative. In conclusion, Commissioner Propes stated that his community was hesitant to be involved in a unclear program that implemented a new bureaucracy.

Mr. Richardson joined the other panelists in denouncing the AHRI by calling it "an unfunded mandate, of which the true costs to the local communities and the impacts on income, property rights, production and competitiveness are still unknown". Mr. Richardson added that his community had also protested the nomination of the Rio Grande as an American Heritage River, yet the nomination process continued. Local communities have not received any detailed information on the initiative except that this program is "one hundred percent locally-driven". Mr. Richardson ended his testimony by remarking that the failure to listen to his community's opposition was in sharp contrast with the locally-driven aspect of the program.

Congressman Gibbons announced that the CEQ stated that any congressman could opt his district out of the AHRI. Yet all panel participants claimed that when this was attempted, the CEQ changed its policy on opting out. Representative Gibbons was also concerned about the administration's explanation of AHRI. Mr. Wesson remarked that the CEQ labeled the AHRI as a big tourism attraction but held no hearings and no public meetings. Commissioner Propes had no contact with the CEQ and heard about the AHRI through the congressional record. Finally, Mr. Richardson stated that the only public meeting he was aware of was held in the small town of Marathon, TX and was not heavily publicized. The committee concluded by asking the panelists if they would be pleased if Congress mandated that public hearings be held in areas affected by the AHRI. All respondents agreed that comments spoken at these public hearings would not be effective and that the CEQ would still push the confirmation of those areas as AHRI.

House Resource Committee Hearing
July 15, 1997

Representatives present
Rep. James V. Hansen (R-UT)
Ranking Member George Miller (D-CA)
Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY)
Rep. Dale E. Kildee (D-MI)
Delegate Eni F.H. Faleomavaeya (Del-AS)
Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI)
Rep.Carlos Romero-Barcelo (Res. Comm.-PR)
Delegate Donna Christian-Green (Del-VI)
Rep. John Doolittle (R-CA)
Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID)
Rep. Linda Smith (R-WA)
Rep. Christopher Cannon (R-UT)
Rep. John Peterson (R-PA)
Rep. Rick Hill (R-MT)
Rep. Bob Shaffer (R-CO)
Rep. James Gibbons (R-NV)
Rep. Michael Crapo (R-ID)
Rep. Owen Pickett (D-VA)
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD)
Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-NC)
Rep. John Duncan Jr. (R-TN)

Opening remarks
Rep. James Hansen (R-UT), who chaired in place of ailing Chairman Don Young (R-AK), began by stating that the hearing was the result of public outcry due to the short public comment period. He also expressed his concern with the "administration's continued arrogance" by taking action without congressional approval. Hansen was referring to President Clinton's designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah which prompted H.R. 901 and S. 691. Rep. Hansen also expressed concern regarding how to pay for the project and hoped the hearing would shed some light on the funding question.

Rep. Rick Hill (R-MT) and Rep. James Gibbons (R-NV) added that they had concerns regarding the regulatory nature of the American Heritage Rivers Initiative and whether it would infringe on local and state rights. Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-ID) expressed great concern regarding the short public comment period and the possibility of the program costing close to $5 million a year, all without Congressional authorization. She also wanted the hearing to clarify how the Federal government could designate land that it does not even own in most cases.

Ranking Democratic Member, George Miller (D-CA) saw the Initiative as an important means to coordinate local, state and federal resources to better manage America's rivers. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) stated that he felt the program should be heavily supported by the American public and was excited at the prospect of the Hudson River competing for designation. Rep. Hinchey saw the initiative as a way to expand on the accomplishments of the Clean Water Act.

Rep. Linda Smith (R-WA) hoped the hearing would establish a better understanding of what exactly the President was trying to accomplish. She had concerns that the President felt the states were negligent and needed 12 federal agencies to help with river preservation. Rep. Smith added that she had questions regarding the reprogramming of funds to pay for the initiative. She wanted to know which federal programs were so overfunded and overstaffed as to allow for this transfer of funds and people.

Panel I participant:
The Honorable Paul McHale (D-PA)

Rep. McHale stated that this initiative is the "single most important conservation effort proposed to date by the Clinton administration" and he enthusiastically supports mixed public and private involvement with the initiative. McHale who represents the 15th Congressional District in Pennsylvania, gave a brief description of conservation efforts along the Lehigh River in his District. He saw the American Heritage Rivers Initiative as a means of continued conservation efforts and in some cases the beginning of conservation efforts along America's rivers.

Questions from members of the committee showed a clear division between opponents and proponents of the initiative. Some of the questions centered around skepticism and the suspicion that the program was not a conservation initiative at all but instead a political initiative. Rep. Gibbons saw the proposal built on a "trust us" assurance when in fact the proposal was an attempt to gain more power and more tax payer funds. Rep. Smith once again questioned the financial details of the initiative. She reiterated her belief that the initiative overstepped the balance of power and would be using funds that had been allotted to agencies for other programs. She stressed the need for congressional action to decide whether the program should proceed or if conservation along America's rivers should be left to the States.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) who expressed enthusiasm with regard to the initiative wondered if Congress should provide additional funding in order to ensure the success of the program. Rep. McHale felt each agency had adequate funds for the program but was not against future Congressional funding. Rep. Miller stressed that the amount of local participation and the lack of a forced designation were all important aspects of the initiative.

Panel II participants:
Ms. Kathleen A. McGinty, Chair, Council on Environmental Quality, Executive Office of the President, Washington, D.C.
Honorable Bruce Babbitt, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Honorable Dan Glickman, Secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D.C.

Ms. McGinty began her testimony by emphasizing that the American Heritage Rivers Initiative provides a "historic opportunity to revitalize communities surrounding the rivers." McGinty mentioned several examples of communities with developed conservation and preservation programs, including the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota and the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee, that have not only improved environmental and historic preservation but also improved economic development leading to the conclusion that "healthy rivers equal healthy communities." The initiative will allow all communities to have better access to the information and resources of federal agencies. She also emphasized that the initiative focuses on the needs and desires of the participating communities.

The CEQ established four means by which to gain public input. Background materials were distributed after President Clinton's State of the Union Address, a web site was set up on Feb. 10, 1997 along with a hotline for citizen comment, 11 public meeting were held in all regions of the county throughout April and May, and finally a draft of the initiative was published in the Federal Register on May 19. McGinty further tried to dispel some of the committee's concerns by stressing the 100% voluntary and locally driven nature of the initiative. Any community can opt out at any time and the initiative is non-regulatory and in compliance with NEPA. There will be "no new requirements or restrictions." McGinty concluded by emphasizing that the initiative is not an attempt by federal agencies to take on new authority. It is not an attempt to take private property. It is not a program of the United Nations, and no foreign governments are involved. The initiative is directed by the President and Vice President's idea of reinventing government and it "brings economic and social concerns into environmental issues."

Mr. Babbitt described his many meetings over the past month with citizens who have had the initiative to begin the conservation and preservation process on their own. He acknowledged that these citizens have made great progress but would be greatly assisted by the American Heritage Rivers Initiative. "The federal agencies are there for [citizens], and they need assistance to restore river areas." Babbitt sees the initiative as a means of empowering citizens by increasing their access to existing programs.

Mr. Glickman focused on the initiative as a vehicle for developing citizen's "visions" for their communities. He felt the initiative would serve as a way to reduce citizen's ever-increasing distrust of the federal government by empowering them. According to Glickman, the River Navigator or what he prefers to call River "Facilitator", will act as a liaison between the community and the government and he/she will help "cut through the red tape." This is not a new, expensive program but rather a way to utilize existing funds in a different way and therefore the initiative does not need congressional authorization.

Questions focused once again on the many concerns of the committee members. Rep. Rick Hill (R-MT) questioned the need for the program at all, especially when there have been so many success stories around the nation involving community-led preservation of local rivers. Hill was also concerned with how the initiative would work in western states that primarily want to develop their rivers as opposed to just restoring them. McGinty assured the committee that the initiative is a way to incorporate economic concerns with environmental concerns. Rep. Gibbons wanted clarification on what would be included in each River Community. Could someone from another locality or state who visited a river for recreation nominate a river? McGinty responded that a river could be nominated by individuals or groups that had a strong and lasting connection to the river.

Both Rep. Michael Crapo (R-ID) and Rep. Christopher Cannon (R-UT) had questions regarding the actual choosing of a River Community and how the federal government and presidential politics would play in the decision-making process. According to McGinty, 12 or 13 agencies in an interagency team would choose the rivers and that presidential politics would have no consideration when making the decisions. Delegate Donna Christian-Green (D-VI) was interested in the web site the CEQ had established. To date, McGinty reported that there have been 31,000 hits to the site. Rep. Hinchey emphasized that the initiative is non-regulatory and is simply a means to consolidate resources and more effectively provide these resources to the public.

Rep. Abercrombie and Rep. Cannon were ill at ease with the reprogramming of funds, especially if the reprogramming was at the expense of the agencies to which the money was allocated. Rep. Bob Schaffer was concerned that the administration would ignore local and state government requests to opt out of the program as was seen with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. McGinty assured him that the program was completely voluntary and that any community could opt out at any time. Rep. Chenoweth asked if an Environmental Impact Statement had been done. NEPA requires that an EIS be done for any "major federal action that will significantly affect the quality of the human environment." Secretary Babbitt felt that the need for an EIS does not apply in this case because the initiative is not a new action but merely President Clinton using the power of his office to continue ongoing conservation and preservation projects.

The committee concluded the meeting with a request for additional information regarding the specifics of the reprogramming needed to fund the initiative.

Sources: Environment & Energy Weekly; CEQ website; Federal Register; White House website; NEPAnet website; American Heritage Rivers Initiative website; Alliance for America website

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at

Contributed by Catherine Runden, Shannon Clark, and Margaret Baker, AGI Government Affairs Interns

Last updated July 28, 1998

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