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Photo Credit: Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association

A Wild and Scenic River in Rhode Island?

The Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act

Denise Poyer, Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association

Editor's Note: There is now a website for the Wood-Pawcatuck Wild and Scenic Rivers Project.

New England’s rivers may not immediately come to mind when you think of the Wild and Scenic Rivers program. Over 30 years ago, in 1982, the National Parks Service (NPS) reviewed rivers across the nation to identify new candidates for the program. Their report identified segments of the Wood and Pawcatuck Rivers for possible inclusion in the program. They noted that the Wood River contained the highest biodiversity of any river in New England. The NPS report contributed to the establishment of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association (WPWA) in 1983 and one of the early goals of WPWA was to get a Wild and Scenic designation for the rivers. This did not happen in the ’80’s because the criteria for a Wild and Scenic river were not formulated with the typical New England river in mind. NPS was looking for rivers that were relatively inaccessible, primarily on federal lands, and contained no dams. Here in southern New England all our rivers are near major populations with many access points. Most flow through a mix of private land, and local and state conservation land. And there are multiple mill and farm dams on nearly every river in the region.

In the 1990’s, it was recognized that although many rivers in the east that did not meet the traditional standards, they still possessed “outstandingly remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, cultural, or other similar values,” which needed to be preserved for future generations. Congress amended the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow for smaller rivers with some impoundments and added “recreation” as a third category for designation. Grassroots organizations began partnering with local, state, and federal agencies to acquire Wild and Scenic status for their rivers and, at the same time, develop management plans. With this partnership approach, eight rivers in New England have received Wild and Scenic designation, most recently the Taunton River in Massachusetts and the Eight-Mile River in Connecticut.

About the National Wild & Scenic Rivers System

The National Wild and Scenic Rivers System was created by Congress in 1968 (Public Law 90-542; 16 U.S.C. 1271 et seq.) to preserve certain rivers with outstanding natural, cultural, and recreational values in a free-flowing condition for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The Act is notable for safeguarding the special character of these rivers, while also recognizing the potential for their appropriate use and development. It encourages river management that crosses political boundaries and promotes public participation in developing goals for river protection.

“In the past 50 years, we have learned — all too slowly, I think — to prize and protect God’s precious gifts. Because we have, our own children and grandchildren will come to know and come to love the great forests and the wild rivers that we have protected and left to them . . . An unspoiled river is a very rare thing in this Nation today. Their flow and vitality have been harnessed by dams and too often they have been turned into open sewers by communities and by industries. It makes us all very fearful that all rivers will go this way unless somebody acts now to try to balance our river development.”

President Lyndon Johnson on signing the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act, October 2, 1968.

With this in mind, the Wood-Pawcatuck Wild and Scenic Committee started working with the NPS Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Program in New England, to begin the process towards obtaining Wild and Scenic designation for the Wood, Chipuxet, Beaver, Queen, and Pawcatuck Rivers. As a first step the committee worked with Rhode Island Congressional Representative Jim Langevin to introduce a bill that would direct the NPS to conduct a study to determine if the rivers meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. The Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act was introduced into the House in April, 2012 and again in February 2013. Both times it was co-sponsored by RI Representative David Cicilline, and CT Representative Joe Courtney. Both times the bill easily passed both the House Natural Resources Committee and the full House. Companion bills were introduced into the Senate by RI Senator Jack Reed, and co-sponsored by RI Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and CT Senators Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy. While the Senate bill was approved by the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in June, 2013, it has yet to be heard by the full Senate. Unfortunately, this lack of progress is not unusual for this Congress. Almost all the bills that deal with land conservation issues have yet to be heard in the Senate. WPWA continues to work with our congressional delegates to do what we can to move the bill forward.

Last spring Representative Langevin requested that the NPS conduct a reconnaissance study to determine if the rivers of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed were good candidates for the Wild and Scenic Program. This report was completed late 2013 and is awaiting final approval for the NPS federal office. Once it is released to Rep. Langevin the results will be announced. Any publicity from this report may help with the Senate bill.

Once the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act is passed, NPS will sanction a three year study which will identify aspects of the rivers that are remarkable and worthy of protection. To do this, a new committee will be formed, consisting of the current partners and many additional stakeholders. We hope to have a representative from each town in the watershed along with state and federal agencies, non-profit conservation organizations, and local interest groups such as agriculture, business, and recreational groups. This new study committee will be tasked with identifying the outstanding resource values of each river. At the same time they will be developing a stewardship plan to protect these resources. This assures that management of the rivers will have input from all interested parties and that local interests and needs will be an important component of the plan.

When the study is completed a report will be sent to NPS. They will review the report and develop their own report to congress with recommendations regarding the qualification of the rivers for the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. At that point we will need to ask our Congressional delegates to sponsor another bill asking Congress to amend the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to include the Wood, Pawcatuck, Beaver, Queen and Chipuxet Rivers.

This process has been long, but the benefits to the local rivers we enjoy so much should be worth effort. Not only will there be an extra measure of federal protection to retain the outstandingly remarkable values of these special rivers, but there will be a management plan developed by consensus of all the users of the watershed.

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