The American Rivers Heritage Advisory Committee, a blue-ribbon panel charged by President Clinton with selecting 20 rivers as "heritage" rivers, met last week, at the White House Conference Center. From these, he will choose 10 for designation.
But at the end of two full days of staff reports and discussion, the 12 committee attendees had not made a final decision as to which rivers they would recommend to the president.
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Instead, they wound up the session with approximately the same list of 30 or so rivers with which they began their review. The committee had selected these prior to the meeting, with each member submitting to the staff the names of 10 rivers (from the list of 126 nominations) he or she favored most.
The committee plans to meet in June for a one-day session to narrow the field to the requisite 20.
It wasn't supposed to go like that. The list was to be nailed down by adjournment on the second day. First, there would be a requisite open meeting, but with no public testimony permitted, not even from members of Congress. Discussion was to be directed by a highly trained facilatator, who would move the group towards consensus. Near the end of the second day the committee would retire into closed session to finalize selection. As stated in the Federal Register, secrecy was deemed necessary "in order to permit the selection of the 20 finalist applicant rivers for submission to the President and to prevent premature disclosure of their identity."
That agenda was thwarted in part by Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-ID, who has spearheaded congressional opposition to the Heritage Rivers Initiative from the very beginning. As chair of the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forestry, the Idaho representative has developed a reputation as a staunch advocate of property rights and a bitter antagonist of government land use planning and control -- which the Rivers Initiative would certainly involve.
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At this time she challenged the legality of the meeting, specifically the refusal to allow public input and the announced secret session.
"This process violates every federal meeting law on the books. If you choose to proceed, you're choosing to proceed illegally, and you are going to embarrass yourselves," Rep. Chenoweth personally told the panel in a blistering statement, though not in open session. Instead, she was forced to make her comments behind the closed doors of a side-room, before the meeting was officially convened and only after receiving
permission from the panel chairman David Duncan, a documentary filmmaker from New Hampshire.
Chenoweth's remarks received public reinforcement from Brian Seasholes, research associate with the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. Seasholes insisted on raising a point of order from the floor, pointing out that the meeting was not in compliance with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which forbids secret decision-making.
In response to his remarks, "the committee said vaguely that this (open session) would 'frustrate' their discussion, and that it was the president's perogative to have this information not disclosed," Seasholes told WorldNetDaily. "But they realized they could be in serious legal trouble, and didn't close the meeting."
They did not, however, open the meeting to public testimony.
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It's not as though the meeting organizers -- the staff of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, which administers the Heritage Rivers Initiative -- hadn't been put on notice about congressional concerns. In February, Chenoweth along with some 60 members of Congress had sent a letter to Katie McGinty, who chairs the
presidentially appointed council. The legislators specifically requested that the advisory committee hold a day of public hearings and testimony, in Washington, D.C., regarding the merits of individual rivers that had been nominated. It would be the only time the committee would hear directly from local citizens who would be impacted by river designation, the letter pointed out.
The announcement of the meeting, which appeared in the Federal Register on April 23, ignored the request.
This was hardly surprising considering the origin and intent of the Rivers Initiative, which Clinton established by executive order, Sept. 11, 1997. It's a more modest version of the American Heritage Areas Act, that Congress voted down in the final days of the 1996 session, due to a massive grass-roots effort. Behind the fancy rhetoric about "community revitalization" and federal "protection" of America's heritage, citizens
across the nation discerned that the bill spelled ever-greater federal land use regulation over private land and increased federal intrusion into the workings of local government.
Undaunted, Clinton simply ran an end-run around the legislative branch. What Congress wouldn't give him, he would take through executive order.
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"I will designate 10 American Heritage Rivers to help communities along side them revitalize their waterfronts and clean up pollution in the rivers," he announced in his 1997 State of the Union address.
Once the program is in full swing, communities along the designated rivers will receive federal support in the form of grants, increased services, and greater access to federal programs. An interagency task force will coordinate programs from Washington, with each river assigned a policy tsar dubbed a "river navigator," a bureaucrat whose
job is to "help implement the community's vision and provide a single contact for all federal resources." Teams of agency planners and technical experts will be sent to river communitites to assure compliance with federal guidelines and regulations.
The program has "serious ramifications for the property rights of landowners who live along the rivers," said Seasholes, and he warned of the the potential of the initiative to "metastasize" over time into a regulatory program.
Like the failed Heritage Areas Act, the Heritage Rivers Initiative is a major springboard to federal land use control. But unlike its predecessor, the initiative will have no congressional oversight -- the programs will be handled exclusively by the executive branch with no accounting to Congress except when it comes to funding.
One might expect that a huge federal presence looming over our cities would cause local elected officials to muster strong opposition and demand the feds return to Washington. Many have. But there are also many who favor the initiative and are actively lobbying for rivers in their bailiwicks to be designated.
"The single thing that's driving this is the pork issue," said Seasholes. "There's an election coming up, and this is a way to channel federal funds to marginal congressional districts and states."
Seasholes pointed out that unlike the defeated Heritage Areas Act, the Rivers Initiative encompasses not only historic preservation, but environmental protection and urban economic redevelopment as well. He predicted the environmentalists will "cut a deal" with those favoring redevelopment to restrict new construction to urban areas and keep it confined within growth management boundaries.
"It's brought together an incredibly diverse constituency of people who want to prevent land use for different reasons -- that's why it's so pernicious," he said.
The panel doesn't see it that way.
"Those on the committee see this as a chance for local officials and citizens to take control," says Linda Liotta, researcher and freelance writer, who attended both days of the meeting and talked with panel members and attendees in the audience. "They don't perceive this as manipulation by the federal government; to them the concept of
'public-private partnerships', which is in the initiative, is very appealing."
The committee was "not happy" about the policy adopted by the council that members of Congress could take rivers in their districts off the table, so to speak, by sending letters of notification to the council. A promise to honor congressional "vetos" had been demanded of Katie McGinty by Chenoweth at a hearing in September. McGinty acquiesed,
and the agreement eventually became policy.
Maria Teran -- an El Paso businesswoman, newly appointed by Clinton to the committee -- argued that if local elected officials favor a designation, their opinion should weigh more heavily than that of a member of Congress, Liotti recalled. "She (Teran) thought it was 'utterly outrageous' that you could have 30 local elected officials in favor of nomination, and one U.S. congressman could override local consensus."
Teran apparently didn't realize that, far from ignoring local officials who favor certain river designations, congressmen are bending over backwards to avoid ruffling feathers at home. They are only calling for delisting when there is a powerful anti-initiative constituency.
For example, in Texas although Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes of El Paso is a strong supporter of the initiative and the designation of the Rio Grande, his district includes relatively few miles (less than 80) of that river. For nearly 800 miles -- from near El Paso down towards the Gulf of Mexico, most of the border counties have passed
resolutions against designation. In response, Republican Henry Bonilla, whose district encompasses most of that stretch, has requested that any part of the river bordering an objecting county be removed from consideration. Webb County, which includes the city of Laredo, has indicated support -- and Rep. Bonilla is agreeable to that segment of
Rio Grande remaining in the running.
Moreover, although Katie McGinty and the council have chosen to honor congressional opting out, they have closed their eyes to the local officials who wish no part of the plan.
This was not lost on Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-MO, who -- in response to numerous resolutions passed by boards of county commissioners along the Missouri River -- asked that that river be delisted from consideration.
"Most local and county governments were under the impression that resolutions passed by their representative bodies would keep their communities from falling under the umbrella of President Clinton's American Heritave Rivers Initiative," said Rep. Hulshof. "Only recently (in January) did make it clear that
Congressmen would have to react to keep rivers in their district from being involved in the initiative."
Hulshof did not, however, request delisting of the long stretch of the Mississippi River which lies in his district north of St. Louis -- presumably because no official county boards of commissioners had asked to opt out.
The committee adhered to the "no testimony" rule which had been set for it, but several faxes were sent by members of Congress in opposition to the designation of a river in their state or district. Among those who weighed in in opposition was Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-TX, who asked for withdrawal of the Rio Grande.
"The house of cards was collapsing during the meeting," observed Brian Seasholes. "The wheels are falling off, though they'll try to put them back on."
But can they?
Says Chad Hyslop, press secretary for Chenoweth, "Clinton's writing the rules as he goes along. If the committee doesn't give him the recommendations he wants he'll appoint others, and maybe he'll ask some to drop off. Eventually, he'll get the ones he wants."
The list of 30 some rivers has not been officially released, but was read at the close of the meeting.