White House Delays Choice of Historic Rivers Skeptical Lawmakers Cite Property Rights

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THE UPPER MISSISSIPPI may in the end be chosen one of the nation's 10 historic rivers and win special attention for the stretch from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minn.

Or maybe the Missouri River will make the list in time for the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's river exploration that began in 1804.

But we'll have to wait a little longer to find out. Selection by the White House has been delayed at the request of skeptics in Congress - among them Missouri's two senators - aligned with groups that worry that the government will trample property rights. The competition is the American Heritage Rivers initiative, which President Bill Clinton proposed four months ago in his State of the Union message. It is designed to promote river conservation and economic development by focusing federal efforts on riverfront regions that make winning presentations. Nominations were to be accepted in early August and the first American Heritage Rivers selected around Labor Day by presidential proclamation. But last week, the public comment period was extended by 60 days - into mid-August - after property-rights advocates enlisted members of Congress in their cause. "I'm absolutely baffled and flabbergasted by the campaign that is being orchestrated around this issue," said Kathleen McGinty, director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. McGinty said the initiative "is 100 percent voluntary and 100 percent driven by local communities, which is what Congress says it wants. It leaves you to scratch your head and say that maybe something else is at work here." Today, a representative from the office of St. Louis Mayor Clarence Harmon and 20 mayors or their stand-ins from along the Mississippi will convene in St. Paul for the first step in nominating the Upper Mississippi. Among those scheduled to attend is D.D. Danforth, who will report back to St. Louis 2004, the civic organization looking at ways to improve the region for the 100th anniversary of the St. Louis World's Fair. St. Louis 2004's task force on parks and open space has endorsed nominating the Mississippi. Nonetheless, several Republican members of Missouri's congressional delegation were in the forefront of pushing for delays. Sens. Christopher S. Bond and John Ashcroft wrote letters to the White House last week asking for an extension of the formal comment period. In the House, Missouri Reps. Jo Ann Emerson and Kenny Hulshof sent similar letters. Bond, who also telephoned McGinty, said in his letter that Missourians "are very suspicious that this may entail new regulatory burdens and further restrictions on the use of their private property and increase long-distance micromanagement from Washington." Leanne Jerome, Bond's press secretary, said that his office had received "a firestorm of telephone calls on the issue - dozens if not hundreds." Ashcroft's office fielded a comparable flood of calls, said Steve Hilton, Ashcroft's spokesman. Bond said in a statement that he was pleased with the lengthened comment period. "Whether the initiative will ultimately be embraced by those in Missouri will be based on the continued dialogue between the people and their government," he said. Early Enthusiasm Skeptics were scarce when Clinton offered the American Heritage Rivers initiative on Feb. 4. The American Farm Bureau Federation observed that "local community-based programs are the backbone of the initiative." Illinois Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra praised the plan and said he expected that the Illinois River would be nominated. In a letter to the White House, Missouri Department of Conservation director Jerry M. Conley called the program "timely and exciting" and put in an early plug for the Missouri River. The initiative is aimed at helping river communities revitalize their waterfronts, recapture historic and cultural values and improve the quality of water in their rivers. …