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Passing up Blueway would be loss to all Arkansans

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The National Blueway designation for the White River would bring the state resources for conservation efforts that would give landowners, hunting and fishing enthusiasts, and anyone who enjoys the outdoors a cleaner and more beautiful place to enjoy.

At a legislative hearing last week, several state agencies and conservation groups who had previously supported the Blueway program requested that the Department of the Interior remove the designation because of a slew of misinformation being circulated by various groups in the state. This is unfortunate and saddening. We cannot afford to miss out on opportunities like this that would bring funding to our state, create jobs, protect our natural resources, and make our state more beautiful.

Last year, 26 stakeholders, including lawmakers, conservation districts and organizations, businesses, recreation groups and others, nominated the White River for inclusion in the National Blueway System. On Jan. 8 of this year the White River was designated by the Secretary of the Interior as this country's second Blueway. This well-deserved designation recognizes the efforts of many partners already working within the watershed for many years to utilize, conserve and restore the White River and its tributaries. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, "The resources made available through this designation will support and promote needed conservation efforts and bolster valuable economic growth and job creation in years to come."

Recently though, misinformation has spread about the true purpose of the Blueway program. The agencies and conservation groups that withdrew their support have said the decision was based on concerns from landowners. Some fear that federal forces are lining up for, at worse, a takeover of personal property and at best a program of crippling legislation that will severely limit what landowners can do on their own property. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Blueway program has no regulatory authority. It has no power over private property, land use or water rights. It is simply a recognition program. The secretarial order clearly states, "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 ... the laws of any state or tribe relating to the control, appropriation, use or distribution of water or water rights."

The National Blueway System supports voluntary land and water conservation and management practices. The program is locally led and federally supported, and it provides an opportunity for diverse stakeholders to work together. It is intended to support sustainable local economies that are dependent on healthy and functional rivers for tourism, recreation, commerce, agriculture and community pride, and was created to enable all our citizens to more easily benefit from a special place where we live, work, and play together.

The Arkansas Canoe Club is still hopeful that there is a way forward for the Blueway program, but with the loss of support from state agencies and other conservation groups, it may not be possible. Regardless, there must be a way forward to make sure that Arkansas puts a priority on conservation efforts and doesn't miss out on opportunities like this in the future. We must have a decision-making process in this state that is driven by rational discourse and factual information rather than rumors and conspiracy theories.

We know there are many Arkansans who want to see our state's uniquely beautiful and pristine lakes, rivers, and streams protected for our children and grandchildren to enjoy. We urge you to talk with your friends, your family members, and your public officials about the importance of conservation efforts like the Blueway program. We must work hard to build a better understanding of the value that these programs bring both to anyone who enjoy areas like the White River, as well as to the local economies who benefit from increased tourism and jobs created by conservation projects. The future of our precious natural resources depends on it.

Debbie Doss is the conservation chair of the Arkansas Canoe Club.

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