LITTLE ROCK — State wildlife and conservation officials told lawmakers Wednesday they plan to ask that the White River watershed be removed from a federal designation as a National Blueway.
While they said they still supported the designation and do not think it will harm the rights of property owners, they noted that opponents have raised questions and expressed concerns and said they did not want to jeopardize local relationships.
Meanwhile, most of the state’s congressional delegation, as well the congressional delegation of Missouri, sent a joint letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on Wednesday with pointed questions about the designation and seeking detailed information about what it means.
Among other things, the lawmakers asked if the designation would cost taxpayers in Arkansas and Missouri anything, how the watershed was selected and could private landowners in the region opt out if they wished.
Opponents, led by Jeannie Burlsworth with conservative activist group Secure Arkansas, said opponents fear that the designation could lead to people losing their land and more restrictions and regulations on the use of water in the watershed.
"What this is creating, we feel like, is a monster for the private landowner to have to deal with, a lot of rules and regulations," Burlsworth said in an interview. "I really do see this as a future federal land grab, and not just Arkansas. I see this being nationwide."
Burlsworth said county officials within the watershed have been urged to pass resolutions opposing the designation. The Booneville County Quorum Court recently approved such a resolution.
The designation was announced in January by Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes during an event at the Peabody Hotel. U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, and U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., attended the event and spoke for the designation.
Ann Mills, deputy undersecretary with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said during that event that her agency would appropriate $22 million to soil and water conservation in counties located within the White River watershed.
Wednesday, Keith Weaver, a project leader with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said that 26 separate groups, ranging from the National Wildlife Refuge Association, the Arkansas Canoe Club and Ducks Unlimited to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the cities of Augusta and Clarendon, nominated the watershed for the designation.
He said the designation would not establish a new protective status with regulations, but was intended to recognize and support existing local and regional conservation, recreation and restoration efforts by coordinating local, state and federal activities.
Weaver said the White River watershed was the second designated by then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who last year named the Connecticut River and its watershed as the first National Blueway.
Michael Sullivan, state conservationist with the federal Agriculture Department, said during Wednesday’s meeting that any of the $22 million that watershed may have already received does not have to be returned.
State Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who co-chaired Wednesday’s hearing, said she requested it after receiving numerous calls from constituents. She said she and most other lawmakers were unaware of the designation until after it was announced, and that residents in the region were not involved in the process.
During the meeting, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Deputy Director Mike Armstrong, state Natural Resources Commission Director Randy Young, Nature Conservancy Project Manager Jason Milks and David Casaletto, executive director of Ozark Water Watch, each told lawmakers they still supported the designation but felt it was more important, based on the public outcry, to opt out.
"We regret that this designation has become a point of contention. This was not anticipated by the partners nor was it intended," Armstrong said. "We do not want … the designation to become an impediment to conservation work in Arkansas and our ability to work with private landowners."
In response to a question, Young said he did not know if the state’s request to opt out would affect future federal funding in the watershed. He said the state received $10.4 million in federal funding last year for two eastern Arkansas irrigation projects and is slated to receive $22 million this year.
"I’d like to be able to tell you that’s because of the White River Blueway," he said, adding he did not know.
Rep. Stephen Meeks R-Greenbrier, said he thought the concerns and fears expressed by landowners and others in the watershed were because of a "lack of trust" of the federal government.
"I think that’s exactly right," Young replied.
Later Wednesday, Griffin said he supported the decision to ask that the designation be removed.
"Considering all that’s happened, I think that’s the best thing that can happen," said Griffin, who did not attend Wednesday’s meeting.
He said he originally supported the designation after being told that it would cost the state nothing, have no mandates or regulations attached and would be voluntary. He said he began to have second thoughts after hearing details of the designation.
"The thing that stuck out was they had said they worked with local stakeholders … but apparently the citizens, the grassroots folks, were apparently not included in the federal government’s definition of local stakeholders," he said. "Yes, some local conservation groups were included in the process, but a lot of the grassroots groups were not."
Gary Collins, a commissioner in Ozark County Missouri, which is in the watershed, attended Wednesday’s meeting and said in an interview his county opposes the designation, as do all the other Missouri counties in the watershed.
"We’ve already got stuff in place, about all the Missouri counties do, to take care of all of this," he said, adding he was concerned about additional regulations and requirements for landowners in the area.