Magazine article Insight on the News

Heritage Rivers Plan: Politics Runs through It

Magazine article Insight on the News

Heritage Rivers Plan: Politics Runs through It

Article excerpt

President Clinton has announced the American Heritage Rivers Initiative -- under which he intends to designate 10 rivers annually as "American Heritage Rivers," appoint a federal overseer (a "river navigator") for each river and provide increased federal funding to make the rivers "models of innovative economic and ecologically sustainable approaches to river restoration and protection."

The Clinton plan has elicited heated opposition from Western congressmen and rural America -- from those who fear another layer of federal bureaucracy with authority to stifle economic activity and to restrict the use of private property.

Those fears are justified, especially considering the vague language of the Clinton plan and the fact that so much remains to be decided. Nor is there legal authority for the program. (The White House assertion that the purposes section of the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, compels action is absurd.) In addition, it is not the president but Congress that regulates navigable waters and local government that oversees land-use planning.

Lost in the controversy is something more fundamental: Why? Given the haste with which Clinton moved on the river plan, there must be some urgency He scuttled the Federal Register process to issue an executive order, rushing plans to name the first 10 rivers by the end of the year.

There is urgency: politics and, more specifically, Democratic political fortunes in the 1998 elections. According to House Resources Committee staff, the first three rivers likely to be designated are the Willamette in Oregon, the Yellowstone in Montana and the Mississippi north of St. Louis. Each has tremendous political significance, especially if it is the recipient of a massive infusion of federal funds -- diverted from other approved programs -- delivered with great fanfare and Clinton's empathetic tender loving care.

For example, the Willamette River in Oregon borders both the 1st and 5th congressional Districts, held by Democrats who each were elected with a scant 52 percent of the vote. Moreover, after Oregon elected a conservative Republican U.S. senator, Democrats cannot afford to have Oregon's seven electoral votes go the way of the rock-solid Republican Rocky Mountain states. …

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