Like dominoes, state and private conservation agencies heads fell before a legislative committee last week, renouncing one by one the Blueway designation they’d supported last year for the White River.
Each announcement — from the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, the state Game and Fish Commission, the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, Ozark Water Watch and the Arkansas Waterways Commission — was met with huge applause from 70-plus people packing the hearing room. Many of them were followers of Secure Arkansas, an anti-government group that believes the Blueway was a federal “land-grab” and one more step toward United Nations domination of humanity.
The Blueway designation was designed to create a platform for agencies with diverse agendas — like irrigation for the Grand Prairie in the southern part of the river, the protection of trout fisheries in the northern part of the river, navigation, wetland restoration — to join forces in seeking federal aid for the river and its watershed. The Blueway designation is not regulatory, nor does it affect private property.
Tell that to Secure Arkansas. Jeannie Burlsworth, who testified before the committee and took pains to characterize the Nature Conservancy, which works worldwide, as an “international organization,” with all the threat to the nation that that implies, said the Blueway designation would create “a nexus of power that the American public has never seen.”
Burlsworth several years ago took on bike-trail funding as a government plot to take away American’s cars, and once wrote that “globalist water masters” from the World Bank were trying to seize Lake Maumelle. The committee had no questions for her after she spoke; even the legislators looked uncomfortable with her presentation.
All the agency heads who came before the Joint Committee on City, County and Local Affairs last Wednesday told legislators that the Blueway Designation was a good thing for Arkansas. They pulled back to protect the relationships the agencies have built with private landowners on conservation work.
Randy Young, the director of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission, said the “stakeholders,” those supporting the designation — including besides those who appeared the National Wildlife Refuge Association, Ducks Unlimited, The Conservation Fund, Audubon, the Arkansas Canoe Club, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the cities of Augusta and Clarendon, Arkansas, local businesses, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior and the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture — had “heard rumblings for several weeks” about opposition to the designation and decided in the hours leading up to the committee hearing to ask the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw the designation, awarded in January. Blueway foe Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who had called the hearing to address the designation, did not know until they spoke that the stakeholders were going to step back from it.
The designation of the White River as the second Blueway in the nation was announced with much fanfare in January at a press conference at the Peabody Hotel by agency and elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, who praised the project as making sure the river would be “a great resource” for decades to come. But in the past few weeks, stakeholders were hearing from “from local, state and federally elected officials,” Young said in an interview, that private landowners in the watershed were taken by surprise by the designation and irritated that they “hadn’t been asked to participate” in the nomination on the front end.
Young called the designation a “no-brainer” that would have allowed groups that don’t always work well together because of their varying agendas to share ideas. He said it would have made water projects in the Grand Prairie and Bayou Meto areas “more competitive.”
“This is a framework for us to have more opportunity to [come together]. … The more you get to know each other there’s a better chance of success.”
Young said he had not been contacted by the Secure Arkansas group, but said he believed they had brought it to the attention of legislators. “To me, the group in the audience, they have historically had concerns of government ownership of land.”
The order for the designation says: “Nothing in this Order is intended to authorize or affect the use of private property. Nothing in this Order is intended to be the basis for the exercise of any new regulatory authority, nor shall this initiative or any designation pursuant to this Order affect or interfere with any Federal, state, local, and tribal government jurisdiction or applicable law including interstate compacts relating to water or the laws of any state or tribe relating to the control, appropriation, use or distribution of water or water rights.”
Young told the legislators he was “personally satisfied” that the designation meant what it said. He believed the designation would give the state “leverage” to get more federal dollars for ANRC projects, and that collaboration framework was a “big plus.”
Mike Armstrong, deputy director of Game and Fish, called the Blueway Designation program “prestigious” and “well-intentioned and much appreciated,” and said it would have given the state “enhanced consideration” for funding for many projects, including the “minimum flow” project to protect fisheries. But, he added, 80 percent of the game and fish his agency regulates is on private property, and maintaining good relations to promote non-regulatory partnerships was more important. Jason Milks of the Arkansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy said he believed in the “purest spirit” of the Blueway idea, which he said would provide Arkansas better standing to compete for some of the billion dollars the federal government spends yearly on conservation issues, but TNC didn’t want to lose “critical local support.” Likewise from David Casaletto of Ozark Water Watch and Gene Higginbotham of the Arkansas Waterways Commission.
Even the Arkansas Farm Bureau, represented by Beau Bishop, said it was “hard to say the designation is a bad thing. It’s not.”
The agency heads all said they’d “learned a lesson” that local involvement should have been sought on the front end. “If this comes back, it will have to come back through the landowners,” Young said. The stakeholders had planned to hold public hearings as a next step, Armstrong said, but hoots from the audience indicated they didn’t believe him. The agencies have until July 31 to sign a memorandum of understanding designating how they would work together on the Blueway. Irvin took issue with the language of the designation, calling it problematic and ambiguous, a viewpoint USDA representative Michael Sullivan said he sympathized with. But he said the designation did not alter federal law and should be read in context.
Rep. John Hutchison, R-Harrisburg, also a foe of the Blueway with a conspiratorial bent, asked the Nature Conservancy’s Milks, “Is it true that The Nature Conservancy’s [mission] is to take farmland out of production?” “No,” Milks answered.
Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative Keith Weaver if the Environmental Protection Agency would be involved, and Weaver said it was not but could in the future be interested in the Blueway’s work. That, Hammer said, would be a problem for farmers.
A couple of legislators weren’t going with the flow, including Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who said, “I don’t recall any attention being given to this during the [legislative] session.” Now, “all of a sudden it’s a big issue.” She said she’d heard concerns about “Agenda 21 … wild and crazy kinds of things,” referring to the Tea Party belief that environmental laws are a communist plot promulgated by the United Nations. She was booed, and added “in my opinion.” She wondered if Arkansas was going to have to return any of the $13 million the federal government has provided Arkansas for soil and water conservation projects in the White River area, to which one person in the hearing room injected, “Who cares?” (The answer was no.)
Hammer made a motion that federal agencies consult the Legislative Council before they make any plans to enhance conservation, sustainable farming, or provide any other benefits in the White River watershed, which passed the committee unanimously.