National Wildlife Refuge System

White River Blueway Designation Is Rescinded

[Editor’s Note: On July 3, after Refuge Update went to press, the Department of the Interior rescinded the White River watershed’s national blueway designation. This article, whose original headline was “2nd Blueway Connects 3 Refuges to 1 Watershed,” has been updated to reflect the rescindment.]

By Bill O’Brian

Photo of the White River
In January, the Department of the Interior designated the White River of Arkansas and Missouri as the United States’ second national blueway. On July 3, DOI rescinded the blueway designation after local and state opposition. (Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism)

In the 1800s, John Wesley Powell defined a watershed as “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

Early this year, the Department of the Interior moved to solidify that sense of community in Arkansas and Missouri by designating the White River watershed as the United States’ second national blueway.

However, on July 3, the Department rescinded the White River blueway designation after opponents contended that the designation could result in new regulations or private land seizures. Supporters said those objections could make landowners hesitant to participate voluntarily in conservation efforts. DOI spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said the designation was withdrawn “in light of requests received from local and state stakeholders.”

The White River flows more than 700 miles from the Boston Mountains of northwestern Arkansas to the Mississippi River in southeastern Arkansas, passing through the Ozark Mountains of Missouri en route. It drains a 17.8–million–acre watershed that spans 60 counties. The watershed is home to 1.2 million people. The river is vital to the wildlife–related economies of Arkansas and Missouri, which statewide accounted for $1.8 billion and $2.8 billion in 2011, respectively, according to the Interior Department.

The watershed contains three national wildlife refuges—Bald Knob, Cache River and White River.

“The watershed is large and geographically diverse—we like to say ‘From the mountains to the Mississippi’—so it is important that these refuges can be connected to a much larger conservation system,” Central Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader Keith Weaver said before the rescindment was announced.

The blueway designation would have established a framework for diverse stakeholders at the federal, state, non–governmental organization and community level throughout the watershed to collaborate on common goals regarding conservation, recreation, education and sustainable economics.

Before the blueway designation was rescinded, the Department of Agriculture had committed $22 million to soil and water conservation in the watershed via its Environmental Quality Incentives Program. The Forest Service was undertaking dozens of habitatimprovement projects. The Army Corps of Engineers was increasing fish and wildlife habitat, too.

The Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Ducks Unlimited, The Conservation Fund, Audubon, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and others also supported the blueway.

White River Refuge is the largest, oldest and southernmost of the watershed’s three refuges. Established in 1935, it is part of Arkansas’ “Big Woods” and one of the nation’s largest remaining seasonally flooded bottomland hardwood forests. With 300–plus lakes, the 161,000–acre refuge is a magnet for outdoor recreation.

Cache River Refuge has the most diverse habitat of the three because of variations in elevation and site conditions. The fragmented 70,000–acre refuge plays a major role in acquiring marginal agricultural lands and restoring them to bottomland hardwood forest. It is where a sighting of an ivory–billed woodpecker—thought to be extinct—was reported in 2004.

Bald Knob Refuge is the smallest (15,000 acres) and newest (1993) of the three. It is important stopover habitat for northern pintails in the Mississippi Flyway and has become one of Arkansas’ top shorebird photographing areas.

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Refuge Update July/August 2013

Last updated: July 10, 2013