Seeking to quell a public backlash, the U.S. Department of the Interior dropped the White River on Wednesday from a new federal program that recognizes conservation and recreation efforts along waterways.
The decision to rescind the National Blueway designation for the 700-plus-mile river, which flows through southern Missouri and parts of Arkansas, had the support of opponents and one-time backers alike. Opponents said the designation, given in January, could lead to new regulations or land seizures. One-time backers said the dispute could make landowners resistant to voluntarily cooperating with conservation efforts.
The Interior Department had received two letters from one-time Blueway backers requesting that the designation be lifted. One was from six Arkansas state agencies, while the other was from two conservation groups — the Arkansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy and Ozarks Water Watch.
"In light of requests received from local and state stakeholders to withdraw the White River and its watershed from the voluntary National Blueways recognition program, the Department has withdrawn the designation," Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, said in an email.
The National Blueways System was created in 2012 and is part of President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors Initiative, a program intended to promote outdoor recreation in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands. The designation doesn't include new regulations.
But Jeannie Burlsworth, founder and chairwoman of the conservative group Secure Arkansas, has said there were concerns that the designation would lead to stricter enforcement of existing laws.
The White River, popular for fishing and boating, was the second waterway to be named a National Blueway; the 410-mile long Connecticut River was the first. The designation includes the entire river as well as its watershed — 17.9 million acres for the White River.
David Casaletto, president and executive director for Kimberling City, Mo.-based Ozark Water Watch, likened the designation to a gold star; though it doesn't automatically bring in new money, backers had hoped it would position the river to be first in line for federal grants.
Pushback to the designation intensified last week, with the issue discussed in an Arkansas legislative hearing. Also, a coalition of Republican U.S. senators and representatives from Missouri and Arkansas sent a letter to the Interior Department asking about the process for revoking the designation.
"We all agree that we should work to protect our waterways, but a new federal Blueway program is not necessary to improve the cooperation of federal and state agencies on the management of the White River," said U.S. Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas in a written statement after the designation was rescinded. "This designation occurred without a formal process — no public comment, lack of transparency from the federal government and without the broad support of Arkansans."
Casaletto said the controversy that erupted had an upside.
"Actually, in a strange sort of way, we have had more awareness of water quality issues and more comments of future support from the public for local groups like ourselves because everyone is saying, 'We know we need clean water. We know we need to protect the environment. Let's do it here. Let's do it locally,'" said Casaletto, whose group works in the upper part of the White River basin. "At least what I've heard from the local people in my area is, 'We're not going backward. We're all going to work together. Let's do it locally.'"