The Housatonic -- 'wild and scenic'

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Greater
New Milford Spectrum

Published 2:04 pm, Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The idea that the northern section of the Housatonic River should get federal designation as a "wild and scenic" river isn't new.

"People have been talking about it for 30 or 40 years," said Bill Tingley, chairman of the Housatonic River Commission.

But slowly -- deliberately so -- the commission is pushing that talk along.

It may take a while but, if the work succeeds, it would mean the river would be more protected from any big development, any grand project.

It would take a good thing, make sure it stays that way, and perhaps make it better, Tingley said.

"There really are no downsides," he said. "We feel it would be a fantastic way to preserve this wonderful river."

In the coming year, Tingley said the commission will work to make sure its seven towns-- New Milford, Kent, Cornwall, Sharon, Canaan, North Canaan and Salisbury -- are in accord.

It would also begin working with area legislators so, by 2016, the lawmakers can sponsor a bill in the state General Assembly to give the river "wild and scenic" status, from Boardman's Bridge in New Milford to the Massachusetts line.

If such a bill were to pass, Gov. Dannell P. Malloy would then pass it on to the federal Department of the Interior.

If that department were to approve, the river would get "wild and scenic" designation.

Using the state Legislature to get the designation is the stream less paddled. More often, designation comes by having the state's congressional delegation work for it at the federal level.

Tingley said the commission decided it would be wiser to keep the effort local.

"We felt going the state route depoliticizes the process," he said.

For other groups becoming involved in the effort, the move to designate the Housatonic is welcome.

"It gives more control over the river to the people who actually live and work here, who love the river the most," said Lynn Werner, executive director of the Housatonic Valley Association, the environmental advocacy group based in Cornwall.

"I hear people say the river is fine the way it is," Werner said. "I tell them this will give them a way to keep it that way."

Congress created the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers program in 1968 to protect rivers that still have value scenically, environmentally and recreationally.

Today, sections of about 200 rivers in the United States and Puerto Rico are designated wild and scenic.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, that's about 12,600 miles of protected streams -- about one-quarter of 1 percent of America's rivers.

In Connecticut, two rivers have wild and scenic designation -- the west branch of the Farmington River in northern Litchfield and Hartford counties, and the Eightmile River in Middlesex County.

Work to add the southern section of the Farmington River awaits congressional approval.

Eileen Fielding, executive director of the Farmington River Watershed Association, said anyone who has seen the Wild and Scenic program in action knows what many people fear about it -- that it would somehow allow the federal government to intrude on towns, adding a meddlesome layer of bureaucracy to gum things up -- simply is not true, especially in the northeastern states.

To get the designation in Connecticut, she said, would be a federal vote of confidence in the ability of towns to do things right.

What the designation has achieved, she said, is a lot more communication among all the people concerned about the future of the Farmington River -- local leaders, environmentalists, anglers, paddlers, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

Fielding said it's also probably improved the property values of the people who live on or near the Farmington.

"It gives the river a certain cache," she said of the designation.

Werner said it would also give the northern half of the Housatonic the federal protection it deserves. It is, she said, not exactly an unknown resource.

"It is known, it is loved, it is nationally recognized," she said of the Housatonic. "It is a destination for people all over the country. `Wild and Scenic' designation will give local people more leverage in protecting it."

By Robert Miller, earthmattersrgm@gmail.com.

 

 

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