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Oklahoma senator puts a hold on local rivers bill

The U.S. House has passed legislation to amend the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act to allow the addition of sections of several rivers in Rhode Island and Connecticut to the federal “wild and scenic” system. However, the Senate version of the legislation appears to have stalled.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was passed in 1968 to protect the natural qualities of the nation’s rivers from excessive development, such as dams. A river designated as wild has minimal development nearby. A scenic river also has little development, but is accessible by roads in certain places.

U.S. Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., introduced the amending legislation, known as the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Protection Act, and it passed on June 11, 2013.

“It will open up the possibility of other federal funding opportunities to help preserve this area and watershed, so it’s an operation that I’m involved with Senator Reed,” referring to the state’s senior senator, fellow Democrat Jack Reed.

The legislation would authorize a $400,000 study to determine the eligibility of 86 miles of the Beaver, Chipuxet, Queen, Wood, and Pawcatuck rivers in the two states for inclusion in the federal system, which is managed by the National Park Service.

The study would determine which sections of the five rivers offer special natural, as well as cultural and recreational opportunities. A committee of local interests, including tribes and nonprofit organizations, would perform the three-year evaluation and come up with a management plan.

Chris Fox, executive director of the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association, said his organization would participate in the study. He said that if the Pawcatuck River designation is approved, it will mean more than just a higher level of environmental protection.

“We’re hopeful that in tandem with the protection comes an elevated interest in tourism on a national level, which would bolster the already strong tourism economy that Rhode Island benefits from,” he said. “It flows through Stonington and Westerly, and for all the folks who come here for the beach, but come for more than just the weekend, this will help. There’s something upstream there. That’s a river. There’s something up there that provides a recreational opportunity for pretty much anybody visiting the state who wants to go to the beach, but not every single day that they’re here.”

Reed, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment, introduced the Senate version of the act in February 2013. “These rivers and open spaces should be added to the list of protected areas and this legislation is an important first step toward achieving that goal,” he said. “One of the keys to a National Wild and Scenic Rivers System designation is local community support. We have a very actively engaged coalition of community conservationists that includes local leaders, students, businesses, historic preservationists, and the Wood-Pawcatuck Watershed Association. Their strong backing and collaboration is essential to this effort.”

Langevin acknowledged that the legislation had stalled, largely because of the opposition of one senator, Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

“I’m very optimistic it will happen. The problem is, Senator Coburn has put a hold on any environmental legislation of this type making it through the Senate. I’m hoping we will be able to break that roadblock and we’ll be able to get that through,” he said. Fox said he was hoping the legislation would eventually pass. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We have the full support of our local Congressional delegates and they can get the job done.” @CynthiaDrummon4

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