KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Pressure is mounting among Missouri lawmakers and landowners to end a federal program that recognizes conservation and recreation efforts along waterways.
Pushback to the National Blueway program began after the 700-mile-plus White River, which flows through southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, was made part of the program in January. But even after the Interior Department dropped the White River from the program earlier this month and put the program on hold, opponents remain unsatisfied. Many of the hundreds who attended a House Natural Resources subcommittee field hearing Monday in southern Missouri want the government to do away with the program entirely.
"We would like the Blueway program to be rescinded nationally, but it's about much more than that," said Justin Gibbs, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, who requested the field hearing along with fellow Missouri Republican, U.S. Rep. Billy Long. "It's about the protection of private property rights and about making sure local stakeholders have a say in the use of their land."
The Blueway program is part of President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative. The designation is intended to promote outdoor recreation and doesn't include new regulations or automatically bring in new money. Backers of the program had hoped it would position the White River to be first in line for federal grants.
But opponents including the conservative group Secure Arkansas complained that there was a lack of public input on the designation and feared it could lead to land seizure and tougher enforcement of existing laws.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced a pause two weeks ago in new designations while the department reviews the process it uses to approve new ones. The designation includes the entire river and its watershed, amounting to 17.9 million acres for the White River.
"What we want to know is: How in the world did they stand up this new program in the dark of night without bringing any stakeholders into the process?" Long asked. "It looked like a land grab to our people."
Gibbs said the National Park Service is expected to release its general management plan in the next few months. He said there are indications that it will close some horse trails, restrict boats in certain parts of the river and designate new wilderness areas.
"We all want clean water. We all want clean air. We all want our lands not to be polluted," Gibbs said. "But I feel it's time that the Department of the Interior realizes that the best conservationists are local stakeholders who have been using these lands and waters for generations."