In January of this year, the White River became the second river designated a “National Blueway” under the National Blueways Program. Nearly six months later, that designation has become the source of controversy and contention, with opponents raising concerns that the designation will lead to increased regulatory activity and threaten private property rights.
So what is the National Blueways Program and what does it mean for a river to be designated a National Blueway?
According to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, the Program advances a public policy of healthy and accessible rivers that are important to local communities and that contribute significantly to local, regional, and national economies.
The National Blueways Program was established by Order 3321 of the Secretary of the Interior. Order 3321 allows for the designation of entire rivers, including the watershed (a “source to sea” approach) as a National Blueway. All designated National Blueways will comprise the National Blueways System.
The Purpose of the National Blueways Program, as set forth in the Secretary’s establishing Order, is to establish a program
…to recognize river systems conserved through diverse stakeholder partnerships that use a comprehensive watershed approach to resource stewardship. River systems designated as a National blueway shall collectively constitute a National Blueways System. The National blueways System will provide a new national emphasis on the unique value and significance of a “headwaters to mouth” approach to river management and create a mechanism to encourage stakeholders to integrate their land and water stewardship efforts by adopting a watershed approach.
The Program is overseen by a “National Blueways Committee” charged with providing “leadership, direction, and coordination to the National Blueways System” including directing the bureaus of the Department of the Interior “to collaborate in supporting the National Blueways System”.
The establishing Order further states that, “National Blueways will be nationally and regionally significant rivers and their watersheds that are highly valued recreational, social, economic, cultural, and ecological assets for the communities that depend on them. National Blueways encourage a landscape-scale approach to river conservation that involves a river from its headwaters to its mouth and across its watershed, rather than individual segments of the channel and riparian area alone. Establishment of a National Blueways System will help promote best practices, share information and resources, and encourage active and collaborative stewardship of rivers across the country.”
Nothing in the establishing Order authorizes the public use of private property or otherwise affects the use of private property, and the Order explicitly states that it will not result in new federal regulations: “Nothing in this Order is intended to be the basis for the exercise of any new regulatory authority . . . .”
The establishment of the National Blueways Program would appear to recognize the importance of protecting river systems as a whole, rather than in segments. Indeed, the primary distinction between National Blueways designation and existing federal designations is that existing designations generally only cover a segment of a river and a narrow band of riparian corridor.