WASHINGTON – Plans to nominate the Potomac River as one of 10 “American Heritage Rivers” has some landowners along the waterway worried about federal intrusion into private property affairs.
The program pledges to give communities access to federal technical and financial assistance for locally initiated proposals to preserve or enhance the selected rivers.
President Clinton vowed that the program would bring “no federal mandates, no regulations, no restriction on property holders’ rights,” when he discussed it in September.
But critics fear that any type of federal assistance will bring federal regulations that will ultimately hurt communities along the rivers.
“We do not need another level of federal bureaucracy,” said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, who has scheduled a public hearing Wednesday in Cumberland on the American Heritage Rivers program.
“We don’t need another excuse to invite the U.N. onto the land. We don’t need another excuse for federal government to infringe on property rights,” Bartlett said.
Allegany County Commissioner Dale Lewis said farmers in the towns of Flintstone and Old Towne are “extremely concerned about potential buffer zones and not being able to farm their own land.”
Karen Zachary, coordinator of the nominating effort for the Potomac, understands that people have questions, probably because they do not understand the program.
“I don’t see it as a threat to individual property rights at all,” she said.
“It is about recognizing local community level efforts,” Zachary said. “It is an opportunity for people in the region to tell the federal government how they can best help us to meet our local goals.”
Nominations for American Heritage Rivers will be accepted until Dec. 10. They will be reviewed by a panel of experts on river issues, to be appointed by the Clinton administration’s Council on Environmental Quality.
The panel will recommend 10 rivers representing the natural, historic, cultural and agricultural diversity of American rivers. Applications should highlight a community plan of action for the river — which could include wildlife restoration, water quality or recreation proposals, among others — and show that the river would benefit from federal assistance.
The president will make the final designation in early 1998. Clinton said federal involvement would be limited to appointment of a “River Navigator,” a single federal official to run interference for the community initiatives.
Zachary said the Potomac is being nominated to recognize the turn-around efforts of state and local governments to “rescue this river from a perilous condition.”
“The history of the whole American experience can be visited first hand by traveling up and down the watershed,” she said of the Potomac.
Her group, the Friends of the Potomac, includes everyone from Cumberland Mayor Edward C. Athey to officials from the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and Allegheny Power. It is interested in preserving, protecting and promoting all the assets of the river, Zachary said.
A spokeswoman for Bartlett said he would not block the Potomac’s designation as a heritage river “when there might be broad-based community support.” That is the purpose of the public hearing at the Allegany College auditorium Wednesday, said Lisa Lyons Wright.
But he remains opposed to the program generally and its lack of protections for property owners, she said.
“If I could veto the program, I would veto it,” Bartlett said Tuesday.
“The purpose of the meeting is to make sure our constituents have all the information possible,” he said.
Lewis said Allegany County commissioners have not taken a position because of the questions they have about the program.
“We have to see what is said tomorrow night, listen to the constituents and weigh out the good and bad,” he said.