by Max Brantley
UPDATE: Be sure to see jump for Leslie Peacock's deeper reporting on the somewhat amazing testimony at this black helicopter freak show.
Republican congresssheeple are now running like scalded poodles from the issue.
Leslie Peacock will be back with a longer report, but she signals that one of the most perpetually disappointing career bureaucrats in state government, Randy Young of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (once laughingly known as a soil and water conservation agency) has said he's heard from landowners (all as ill-informed as he apparently) and also wants the Interior Department to withdraw the blueways designation. Pitiful. More pitiful still is news that the Game and Fish Commission, another agency not known for its backbone, has also turned yellow tail on the proposal, according to a legislator's Tweet.
If facts, not fantasy, are your preference, check the Fish and Wildlife Service explanation. (It was on hand today to try to quell the controversy, along with USDA, Army Engineeers and Interior Department.) The Arkansas Canoe Club, a dangerous group of one-world radicals, had endorsed this, too, among many, many others. If not Jeannie Burlsworth. But the canoeists have apparently jumped overboard, too. CORRECTION: The Canoe Club held firm, contrary to a report I'd heard that all in the original coalition had decided to stand down at least temporarily.
It gets worse. The influential Nature Conservancy has taken down its page in support of the project and has dumped the project, too, because of the outcry. Also Ozark Water Watch. All fear alienating supporters.
As Leslie put it in a note to me from what she's been hearing:
They all say designation would be good and no 'taking' and could make it harder to get fed money if no blueway... but they dont want to piss off landowners they work with on conservation
Bullying works. Facts don't count. Paranoia trumps. Chapter Umpteen of the Republican majority legislature. Also to those who thought otherwise and gave up: Appeasement begets only more appeasement.
In December, spokesman for three state agencies and two private conservation agencies said, the National Blueway Designation for the White River looked like a good idea. It would create a framework for various federal agencies involved in conservation — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the state Game and Fish Commission, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and others — to coordinate and collaborate on projects like flood control, wetlands protection, recreation, economic aid and so forth.
Randy Young, director of ANRC and no environmental firebrand, said he was "personally satisfied" that the designation involved no new rules or regulations and provided no means to take private property. 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 the state Game and Fish Commission, called the Blueway Designation program "prestigious" and "well-intentioned and much appreciated," and would have benefited many projects, including the "minimum flow" project to protect fisheries. 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 more opportunities to access appropriations for the river. Likewise from David Casaletto of Ozark Water Watch and Gene Higginbotham of the Arkansas Waterways Commission. All the stakeholders affirmed they believed the designation gave the federal government zero ability to take lands or manage properties in a way that would hurt landowners. Indeed, the Blueway Designation includes this language:
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.
Even the Arkansas Farm Bureau, represented by Beau Bishop, said it was "hard to say the designation is a bad thing. It's not."
But all could read the writing on the wall: There was too much backlash from landowners and people who make their business on the river who don't trust the federal government. They did not want alienate folks, real and potential partners in conservation. The agency heads all said they'd "learned a lesson" that local involvement should have been sought. "If this comes back, it will have to come back through the landowners," Young said. And so they all agreed to ask the Secretary of the Interior to withdraw the Blueway Designation from the White River, one of only two designated as such in the country.
The benefits of the designation were to be presented to the public in public hearings, Armstrong said, as the next step, a statement that drew hoots from the mostly anti-Blueway audience. The agencies have until July 31 to sign a memorandum of understanding designating how they would work together on the Blueway.
A couple of legislators weren't going with the flow, including Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, who pointed out that there was a press conference in January at the Peabody Hotel to announce the designation (one at which U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin called the initiative “an example of the federal government being led by local folks. ... You are making sure the White River will remain a great resource for my 2-year old and 5-year-old for decades to come,” according to reporting by Evie Blad in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette). "I don't recall any attention being given to this during the [legislative] session," she said, and noted that the stakeholders named in a press release included the cities of Augusta, Clarendon, Ducks Unlimited, Audubon, the state Natural Heritage Commission. Now, "all of a sudden it's a big issue." She wondered if Arkansas was going to have to return any of the $13 million the federal government has allocated to Arkansas for soil and water conservation projects, to which one person in the hearing room said injected, "Who cares?" Flowers said she'd heard concerns "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 got some boos for calling that idea crazy, which spoke volumes about the opposition to the idea.
Opponents — including Rep. David Hillman, D-Almyra; Rep. Tim Hammer, R-Benton; and Rep. John Hutchison, R-Harrisburg — used several dirty words. "Nature Conservancy" was one, as Hutchison asked Jason Milks, "Is it true that The Nature Conservancy's [mission] is to take farmland out of production?" ("No," Milks answered.) "International" was another, which Secure Arkansas's Jeannie Burlsworth, spokesperson for the U.N. takeover, black helicopter, global warming conspiracy set, used in describing the Nature Conservancy. "EPA" was a third, tossed about by Hammer in his questioning of federal agency officials who also spoke at the hearing. Yes, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service representative Keith Weaver said, it's possible that someday the Environmental Protection Agency might wish to work with the Blueway committee, an answer that Hammer said sent chills down the spines (my words, his meaning) of farmers up and down the river.
The designation, Burlsworth said, "creates a nexus of power that the American public has never seen," and she believes it violates the Federal Land Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.
Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who convened the hearing by the Joint Committee on City, County and Local Affairs, took issue with the language of the designation, calling it problematic and ambiguous, a viewpoint USDA representative Michael Sullivan sympathized with. But he said the designation did not alter federal law and should be read in context.
Finally, Hammer made a motion that federal agencies come before the Legislative Council before they make any plans to enhance conservation, sustainable farming and other benefits on the White River or anything else, which passed the committee unanimously.