Secrecy May Prove the Undoing of American Heritage Rivers Initiative

Published June 1, 1998

Congressman Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), concerned that the American Heritage Rivers Initiative (AHRI) will lead state and local governments to surrender their constitutional authority to 13 federal agencies, has been waging a personal battle against the increasingly unpopular Clinton administration initiative.

Chenoweth’s efforts now point to two avenues open to those who oppose the designation of Heritage Rivers by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ).

First, notes Chenoweth, it has always been possible for members of Congress to have rivers in their districts exempted from AHRI designation. Chenoweth’s office reports that 46 Congressmen have already obtained exemptions for their districts, and others are likely to do so if sufficient pressure is brought by constituents.

Chenoweth’s experience at a mid-May meeting, held by the CEQ to designate twenty rivers, may provide a second way.

CEQ chairperson Kathleen A. McGinty had determined that the first day of the May 11-12 meeting would be open to the public, but no public comment would be permitted. The second day of the meeting, when the AHRI Advisory Committee was scheduled to determine which rivers would be selected for Heritage River designation, was completely closed to the public.

When Chenoweth arrived at the May 11 meeting, she and committee members were whisked into a back room, where the already-assembled audience could not hear her critical comments. Chenoweth reiterated the opinion expressed in a letter she and Congressman Bob Shaffer (R-Colorado) faxed to McGinty on May 7: the “gag rule” for the first day of the meeting and the secrecy of the second day violated the Federal Advisory Commission Act (FACA). But for a few very tightly defined exceptions, FACA requires opportunity for public comment and prohibits secrecy in such meetings.

As of June 7, McGinty had not replied to the Congressmen’s letter.

If FACA was violated, as Chenoweth and many of her colleagues believe, this opens the possibility that individuals or groups owning property in areas affected by AHRI designations could sue to have those designations declared illegal, on the grounds that the meeting in which they were made was illegal. Such legal actions have brought mixed results in the past, but the possibility of success exists.