Crowd packs field hearing on 'Blueways' designation

Aug 1, 2013

The theatre in the West Plains Civic Center was the site of the Congressional Hearing on the Blueways Designation for the White River Watershed, which has since been rescinded by the federal government.
Credit Jennifer Davidson / KSMU
The term “Blueways” has some Ozarks residents seeing red.  At least, that was the case at a Congressional field hearing Monday in West Plains over the “National Blueways Program.” 

That’s a designation the US Department of Interior bestowed upon the White River Watershed earlier this year with little or no say from local and state leaders. 

When landowners heard about the designation, many became concerned for their property. They spoke out, and the federal government rescinded that designation earlier this month.  But the ordeal has left a bitter taste in the mouths of Ozarkers already known for their general distrust of the federal government. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson has this report on the field hearing.

Before the hearing was called into order in the West Plains Civic Center theatre, three women with cardboard signs critical of the Blueway Program began singing of freedom.

The general tenor of the hearing could be summed up in four words: “Don’t Tread on Me.”    Many of those attending, and everyone who testified, said they felt the federal government had tried to pull the wool over their eyes with the Blueways designation for the White River Watershed.

The White River Watershed covers a huge swath of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas—reaching from Springfield and Branson deep into the Natural State.

The US Department of the Interior has said the Blueways Designation is simply an award—it shows that the watershed has been kept healthy and that the designation will promote tourism and recreation.

But Congressman Jason Smith, who represents Missouri’s eighth district in southern Missouri, says the wording in the official order was ambiguous.  He feared it could lead to calls for eminent domain of property along the watershed.

“They wanted to create a 180-foot buffer zone around the surface water of the rivers. You tell me that’s not going to affect property owners,  and whether their livestock can get near the river? That’s an infringement on regulation, which is an infringement on property rights,” Smith said.

Smith clarified that the official Blueways designation itself did not include that buffer zone, but rather, it was mentioned in the memorandum used to nominate the White River Watershed for the designation.

He contends that the White River Watershed was nominated by an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. that is trying to brush aside the legislative process and quietly enforce policy through the executive branch.

In addition to concerns over property rights, there’s a worry about more fines and regulations for farmers.

The hearing was interrupted numerous times by applause, and by shouts of “Resist!” and “Let him speak!” when one witness’s time was up.

The loudest applause came when one landowner called for punitive action on “unelected bureaucrats” who have overstepped their authority.

Just before the hearing started, I spoke to Ronnie Pender, who came here from Van Buren.

“I’m interested in finding out more about the Blueways Designation. I’ve had a hard time finding out what it would do for us…for us, or to us,” said Pender.

Becky Colvin is from Eminence, Missouri.

“I have definite misgivings about the program, and I feel that they are trying to infringe upon our property rights.  It is very important that we show our presence to our representatives—that we are watching what they are doing, and we want to know what’s going on,” said Colvin.

Another person there, Caroline Brown of Poplar Bluff, does independent research on environmental issues.

“But the major thing that people, I think, are now understanding is that: our food is under control. Our air is under control. And now, they feel the last is now our water.  Even though they have had federal control of our national parks, and our waterways, we’re at the point now that people realize that they may not be able to even  have water on a well pump in their back yards," she said.

Congressman Billy Long of Missouri’s 7th District also took part in the hearing.

The hearing was lopsided against the Blueways Designation: all of the committee members posing questions and all of the witnesses were against it.  However, that’s partly because one person invited to give testimony didn’t show up:  the Blueways spokeswoman from the US Department of Interior.