Property Rights Advocates Lament Recent American Heritage Rivers Announcement

Published January 1, 1999

While environmentalists are rejoicing over the recent court victory that cleared the way for implementing President Clinton’s American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI), opponents are chalking it up as another federal land grab that violates the constitutional rights of property owners.

The AHRI program will affect 10 rivers in 21 states. Twelve federal agencies will exercise control over property and activities within the rivers’ designated watersheds. Neighboring communities will receive federal funding.

The selected rivers, culled from 126 nominees, are: the St. Johns (Florida), Connecticut, Detroit, Hudson, New, Potomac, Rio Grande, Willamette, part of the Mississippi, and the Hanalei in Hawaii. Not recommended by the American Heritage Rivers Advisory Committee but added later by the President were four river systems: the Cuyahoga, Blackstone, and Woonasquatucket; the lower Mississippi; the upper Susquehanna; and the Lackawanna.

Opponents of the AHRI, among them U.S. Representatives Don Young (R- Alaska) and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), filed suit to stop the initiative but failed when a federal court judge ruled they could not prove they had been hurt by the initiative, and thus lacked standing in court to challenge it. Any remaining AHRI opposition had all but disappeared by the end of summer. (See “Heritage Rivers Opposition Collapses,” Environment News, September 1998.)

To be sure, some of the affected areas will look much nicer in a few years, while others will probably become further examples of bureaucratic bungling, say the authors of a recent story in The Journal of the James Madison Institute.

“The unseen and uncounted cost of AHRI will be found in the loss of property rights and the invasion of private spheres of action of people whose land rights will have been taken without compensation,” according to Stacie Thomas and Bruce Yandle, coauthors of “American Heritage Rivers: Another Property Rights Battle.”

Thomas is a graduate student in economics and a research assistant in Clemson University’s Center for Policy and Legal Studies. Yandle is the center’s director and a member of the James Madison Institute Research Advisory Council.

Thomas and Yandle recount how, following years of frustration with federal efforts to make certain rivers attractive for fishing and swimming, residents had banded together by the mid-1980s to do the job themselves. Each of these river associations used “river keepers” to patrol their respective areas. In those areas where AHRI will operate, similar tasks will be performed by “River Navigators,” a euphemism, write Thomas and Yandle, for individuals hired as federal employees who would work with “river communities” that probably will be represented by state bureaucrats and environmentalists.

The end result, Thomas and Yandle argue, is an arrangement that will leave “little voice for ordinary citizens and local elected officials whose private rights and community responsibilities could be compromised by a grand plan to control land-use for miles along a local river.” While opposition to AHRI in Congress has all but disappeared, grassroots and state-level political opposition remain strong.

Following the rebuff of the Young/Chenoweth lawsuit, residents in the West and in rural areas have pulled out of the program. Alaska has withdrawn, and Idaho is reconsidering its position. Citing successful community-based programs already in place, Colorado legislators have lined up against designation of any state river. In Indiana, residents opposed the nomination of the Wabash River, while heavy resistance was reported in Montana when the Yellowstone was mentioned.

Strongest opposition to AHRI comes from those whose lives depend on their government to protect and enforce regulations governing private property: farmers, ranchers, and timber producers.

Not surprisingly, note Thomas and Yandle, the heaviest support for AHRI comes from urban areas, especially those on the East Coast, that are least affected by federal land-use controls and where many residents expect Washington to manage and control assets they do not own.

“Commuters from condos to offices are not likely to understand what it means for a federal agent to deny the right to build a home, plow a field, or harvest timber,” write Thomas and Yandle. “More often than not, urbanites already live in a regulated environment.”