Most Everything You Need to Know About the White River National Blueways Designation

The White Rivers Blueway designation was brought to my attention when my wife forwarded me an email she received from a friend. My initial reaction was one of confusion.

What is this? Whats a Blueway? And will it impact people as badly as Im being told?

So thats what I set out to learn.

Heres what I found.

Origins of the Blueway System

On April 16th, 2010, President Barack Obama issued a memo establishing the Americas Great Outdoors Initiative.  This program was to be led by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, the Administrator of the EPA and the Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality and implemented with these agencies:

(i) the Department of Defense;

(ii) the Department of Commerce;

(iii) the Department of Housing and Urban Development;

(iv) the Department of Health and Human Services;

(v) the Department of Labor;

(vi) the Department of Transportation;

(vii) the Department of Education; and

(viii) the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

The National Blueways was created by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on May 24, 2012.  Salazar created the program essentially with the stroke of a pen when he issued Secretarial Order #3321:

3321 Establishment of a National Blueways System 2 by Charlene Cleo Eiben

Section 4 of the order designated the Connecticut River and Watershed as the first National Blueway.

According to the press release issued from the Department of the Interior, the Blueways System is a part of the Americas Great Outdoors Initiative:

The new National Blueways System is part of the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative to establish a community-driven conservation and recreation agenda for the 21st century. The Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture both identified the Connecticut River as an important priority under America’s Great Outdoors.

“USDA’s Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service are proud to partner with the Department of the Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers and others in developing a National Blueways System as called for in the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. “Outdoor recreation is a powerful economic engine for rural America. By working to protect our rivers and streams on National Forests and on our private working lands, USDA is committed to promoting land stewardship and outdoor recreation.”

So what does this mean?

What is a Blueways System?

Heres what Order #3321 says regarding what constitutes a Blueways System:

River systems designated as a National Blueway shall collectively constitute a National Blueways System.  The National Blueways System will provide a new national emphasis on the unique value and significance of a “headwaters to mouth” approach to river management and create a mechanism to encourage stakeholders to integrate their land and water stewardship efforts by adopting a watershed approach.  This Order also establishes an intra-agency National Blueways Committee to provide leadership, direction, and coordination to the National Blueways System.  It further directs the bureaus of the Department of the Interior (Interior) to collaborate in supporting the National Blueways System, to the extent permitted by law and consistent with their missions and resources.


It means the federal government created a committee chaired by the Secretary of the Interior or a designee and made up of a representative designated by the Directors of the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs; the Commissioner of Reclamation; and a representative designated by the Assistant Secretary – Policy, Management and Budget.

This committee will:

(i)        Oversee the process of National Blueways criteria development, assessment, and designation;

(ii)       Make recommendations to the Secretary for the designation of National Blueways;

(iii)      Oversee support provided by Interior to designated National Blueways; and

(iv)      Report to the Secretary on the progress, accomplishments, opportunities, and challenges of the National Blueways System.

The way this works is, a bunch of federal, state and local groups working together on river conservation and ask the committee to designate a river as a Blueways System.  The committee gets together in Washington, DC somewhere, look over the recommendation and tell the Secretary Yea or Nay.  The Secretary then announces the designation of the river as a Blueways System.

On January 8, 2013, Sec. Salazar added the White River Watershed to the Blueways System.  Who wanted this?

These folks:

Organizations Supporting the Designation of the White RIver as a Blueways System

Notice anything about those folks? Not one of them represents or actually are land owners in the area they want to designate a National Blueway.


In fact, there werent many, if any, elected officials on the county level who were consulted or even knew about this.

The people writing the nomination are completely divorced from the area.

And speaking of their nomination packet, here it is:

Nomination for White RIver Watershed Designation as a National Blueway

Produced by people outside the area, without consulting with the people in the area, and approved by people in Washington, DC.

Now thats a recipe for disaster.

Despite that, the White River Watershed, from headwaters to mouth, is today a part of the National Blueways System.

How Does This Impact the People of Missouri and Arkansas?

On page 18 of the nomination packet, we find the goals of the people requesting the White River Watershed to be a Blueway System.

Heres what they envision:

The rivers are the lifeblood of the Watershed; their health is the single most important determinant in whether the suite of ecological services and quality of life and economicbenefits they have historically provided can be sustained for the long term. They should be protected from the surrounding cropland by forest, and adjacent cropland should have well-developed and implemented conservation plans to maximize water use efficiency and reduceoff-farm losses of sediments and agrichemicals. Non-productive and/or frequently flooded farmland should be returned to wetland or forest, as appropriate. At their headwaters, the White and its tributaries should each be protected to establish increasingly effective corridors for wildlife population migration and expansion. As each river boundary should be protected, so should the river’s natural hydrogeomorphology. Each river’s ability and nature to move and stabilize should be restored or protected as much as possible for its value to the stream bank, sediment abatement, flood control and biological diversity.

Now maybe its me, but it seems like they want to dictate how farmers use their land around these rivers and streams.  In some cases, they propose to tell farmers to turn non-productive cropland into wetlands if they deem it floods too often.

And theres a lot of other goals that would require regulations, laws and mandates from the government, which is interesting considering Section 7 of Secretarial Order #3321, which reads:

Nothing in this Order is intended to authorize or affect the use of private property.

Well, this is a quandary. How do you propose to mandate streams and rivers in the White River National Blueway be protected from the surrounding cropland by forest if you cant affect the use of private property?

How can these folks implement conservation plans to maximize water use efficiency and reduceoff-farm losses of sediments and agrichemicals without affecting the use of private property?

And is this what the Secretary of Agriculture meant when he said, By working to protect our rivers and streams on National Forests and on our private working lands, USDA is committed to promoting land stewardship and outdoor recreation.”

Unanswered questions like this are exactly why the citizens of Arkansas and Missouri are pushing back so hard against this.

We know from experience that federal programs tend to grow well beyond what they were originally sold as. And considering what Sec. Vilsack said, its possible it was always part of the plan.

Mission Creep

How hard is it to imagine Secretarial Order #3321 being written with the express intent of being expanded upon later? Or worse, knowing it would remain the same but the laws and mandates coming from state, county and local governments?

Oh, the federal government isnt telling you you have to install a forest long that stream. The state is. Were powerless here.

Its this kind of incrementalism that could lead to farmers being told where to install fences and how to fertilize their crops, which is why even the Lt. Governor of Missouri opposes the designation:

White River Waterway Letter to Interior

It starts out sounding very innocent, but its not a very big jump before force is being used in the name of conservation.

Some have referred to this as a land grab.

Thats entirely possible. While the federal government wont initially do it, its not unrealistic to foresee state governments doing something similar.

Well, its unrealistic now, because so many have spoken out about it.

But if it remained under the radar, the use of eminent domain would have allowed governments to snatch up land right and left.

Thats not going to happen now.

Where We Stand

As you could see from the post-script on Lt. Gov. Kinders letter, groups are bailing on the whole thing like rats leaving a sinking ship.

The Agriculture Council of Arkansas says at least three groups are going to request DC reverse their decision:

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 Com- mission Deputy Director Mike Armstrong said. “We didn’t foresee the backlash, I’ll be honest with you.”

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.

Elsewhere, people across Missouri and Arkansas organized on the county level, getting more than half of the counties to pass resolutions against the designation.  And they continue to meet.

They continue to fight.

And we should join them.

It will take the federal government, specifically the Secretary of the Interior, reversing the designation before this ends.

Write a letter.  Call.  Send emails.

Tell your legislators to do the same.

Take action.  Even if its just sharing this blog post.

Do something, because if we allow this to continue, its a matter of time before its abused.

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